So last time I chatted about RPGs I spoke about how to prepare a session. This time I’m going to go even bigger and talk about preparing for a new campaign. Like my last post I’ll be framing this in the context of Dungeons & Dragons, but these tips go for pretty much all RPG campaigns.
Step 1: Talk to Your Players
I’m going to go ahead and assume you have some people to play in your campaign so I’m not going to cover that (if you don’t just head outside with a big net and pretend you’re playing an even nerdier version of Pokemon Go).
The absolute first thing you need to do is talk to your players about the type of game they want. I know you probably have your own little world already growing in your head (I sure do) and you’re busy filling it out with monsters, ne’er do wells, and long bearded, big hatted demi-gods but trust me when I say you can save yourself a helluvalot of lost time by just talking to your players. This doesn’t need to be a big formal thing, just drop people a message through text, email, palantir, facebook or whatever you use and ask what kind of game they’re up for.
The Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) lists the three typical types of games of D&D:
- Hack & Slash: The dungeons and dragons part of Dungeons & Dragons – find the monster, kill said monster, take said monsters stuff. Light on roleplay, heavy on action.
- Immersive Storytelling: Spies, backstabbing, weddings of various colours; these games are about interpersonal conflict and shrewd minds. Heavy on roleplay, light on action (traditional action anyway).
- Something in Between: Both! Find the monster, try to kill the monster, turns out the monster is a good guy, head back to town to kill the cleric who sent you to kill the monster ‘cause they’re actually super evil and a big jerk. A nice balance between roleplay and action.
You probably know the type of game you want to run, all you need to do is find out if people want to play it.
I spend a lot of time on Reddit in the various D&D and RPG subreddits (links below) and I see a lot of the same questions coming up, but also a lot of the same problems. Many of these stem from what I think is a misalignment of the DM and the players expectations. A DM has crafted an intricately woven tapestry of counts, dukes, and kings to rival Game of Thrones but all the players want to do is find the dungeon, kill the monster, and loot the treasure. Both of these are absolutely fine ways to get your dice on but for everyone’s sake, including the DM (cause they’re playing too), make sure you all want roughly the same type of game.
Also, “Talk to your players” is generally the answer to most questions or difficult scenarios that crop up during play.
Step 2: Session 0
Session 0’s are great fun and, I feel, essential to starting a new campaign. Everyone comes together and has a big brainstorm about what they want from the game, the characters they’re going to play, maybe even the world they’re going to play in.
This is where you, as the DM, can bring some of those wicked little ideas and nuggets of mystery that have been bubbling in your head to the table and chat to the players about what they think. If you’ve devised some history about the world or key themes and threats then ask the players what they think but most importantly listen. As the players talk amongst themselves about character options and ideas they’ll give you a gold mine of information to build off. One player has decided they’re going to be from an ancient order of knights who fell from grace when they failed to prevent a demon from rising; another player is part of a clan of elves that viciously guards the crystal clear waters of a lake at the base of an icy mountain. Listening to these points and extrapolating gives you tonnes of potential adventure fodder and lore about the world
- There was a powerful knightly order. Where is their old keep? Are there any knights left? Why did they fail to stop the demon? Were they betrayed?
- A demon was loosed upon the world. What type of demon? What damage did it cause? Is it still around? (here’s a potential Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG) for your campaign!)
- There’s an elven clan. Are there more? Why do they guard the lake? Is the water magical? What happens if it’s poisoned? Is the icy run off from the mountain special?
The DMG also has an entire section dedicated to discussing the level of magic in your setting, the presence of the gods, whether it’s explored or wild, and on and on. Seriously, give it a read if and when you’re chatting to your group about building your world.
Session 0 is also a great place to introduce and explain any house rules you might have or the group might enjoy, like having Critical Success or Failure on a skill check; or any character restrictions such as “dwarves can’t use magic”. Its also a good idea to talk about what themes you as a group are comfortable with, or how you handle inter-party conflict. Hell, you can even talk about whether you want snacks at the table! A few points I would suggest touching on:
- What is the “rating” of your game? Is it suitable for all ages or is it an R rated blood bath?
- Are there certain themes that are off limits, i.e. racism, sexual violence, discrimination etc.
- Is inter-party conflict allowed? i.e. can you steal from or attack other party members
- How do you decide on who gets what magic item?
- What kind of levelling up do people prefer (milestone or xp)?
This might seem like overkill if you’re playing with a group of people you’ve known for a long time, but they might surprise you. I also consider some of these questions hugely important when playing with new people – folks have to deal with racism and discrimination in real life, they may not want to deal with it in their chill out time. Then again your players might enjoy exploring some of these deeper themes through the safety of a role-playing game and that can also be hugely satisfying. The important thing is to ask. (NOTE: I’ve also previously seen it suggested that each player has a chip or coin with them and that if something comes up during play that they’re not comfortable with they simply put it in the centre of the table and everyone moves on, no questions asked.)
Step 3: Character Backgrounds & Bonds
So in 5th Edition D&D they introduced Backgrounds for characters. These are the bones of a backstory that give you personality traits, flaws, and ideals and are really great for fueling roleplay. However, as good as they are, they are only about that character. One of the biggest mistakes I think new DMs make (and Tyr knows I’ve done it myself) is having the party not be connected in some way and relying on “shared struggle” to drive them together. This usually takes the form of starting in a tavern and getting in a bar fight or having a group of orcs or bandits attacking the starting town that they’re in. It can work, but it can be a bit… heavy handed.
Our group has played a lot of different systems over the years and we’ve “looted” various different mechanics to ensure that in any new game we start that some of the characters are connected. The Dresden Files/Fate Core has an excellent approach to this wherein players come up with their “first adventure” and pick two other players who were “guest stars” and helped in some way to solve the problem. Then that character will invariably end up being a guest star in another character’s first adventure. It’s a neat way of handling party relationships and I recommend checking it out for inspiration (the setting/city creation is also absolutely fantastic [LINK]).
Another option we used during a recent Pathfinder game was to have each player write down 3 different sentences/ties/events for their character. These were then shared around the table (or can be drawn from a hat) and players chose ones that matched their characters. Here are a few examples:
- Toren has hired me to help find the priest of Asmodeus that murdered his family.
- I stepped in and saved Doran during a fight he would have otherwise lost. He now feels that he owes me a debt that must be repaid.
- While pleasantly drunk you and Garde came up with a plan to break into Hocum’s Fantasmagoria in Redroof. She was only half joking
- I once paid Amicus to escort me to a clandestine meeting
Some of these connections imply a strong relationship, some imply an acquaintance. Either way the characters are now connected and if everyone at the table does this it creates a nice daisy chain on relationships without everyone needing to know everyone else!
Now, back the individual character backgrounds. As mentioned, the backgrounds in D&D 5th Edition are great starting points but I like to know a little more about the characters when I’m prepping a campaign. If I secretly have a BBEG planned who is an evil wizard and then find out one of the characters parents was enslaved by an evil wizard well then it makes sense that I smash these two evil wizards together into a single compelling enemy!
Below I have the questionnaire I ask my players to fill in when they bring a new character to the table. I honestly can’t remember where I picked this up (it’s a good 6 or 7 years ago) but if you created it, thank you! Take a look:
- Step 1: Write five things about your character’s concept and background, five things that you think are the most essential parts of your character. You don’t have to stop at five, if you like… this is just a minimum.
- Step 2: List two goals for the character that you, as a player, think would be cool to see accomplished in-game.
- Step 3: List two secrets about your character. One is a secret the character knows, one is a secret that involves him but that he is not actually aware of yet. This will help me in creating plots that center around your character. I will also be creating a third secret which you as a player will not be aware of, so expect some surprises!
- Step 4: Describe three people that are tied to the character through blood, romance or honor. Two of them are friendly to the character, one is hostile. All can do something useful for you, if you can get the situations to line up. If you like, you can include an enemy of yours here as well, so I have an instant NPC nemesis to throw at you.
- Step 5: Describe three memories that your character has. They don’t have to be elaborate, but they should provide some context and flavor.
Players can be as elaborate as they like with these and it will give you a tonne of fuel for your games. I’ve included some examples from our old Dragon Age game at the end of the post if you want an idea of how to work these into your story.
Step 4: Begin Your Campaign!
By now you have a wealth of information about your world and your player’s characters, and you also have all of your own sneaky DM ideas too. So you’re ready to play! My suggestion now is to do just what the DMG says and start small. Come up with a simple town or village for your players to explore and pepper it with a few threads of adventure. See which ones the players pull on and then run with it. Don’t start too complicated: kobolds attacking a nearby mine might sound trite but it’s easy to manage and understandable, perfect for players getting to grips with new characters. And it doesn’t mean you can’t twist it! (Maybe the kobolds are actually good guy vigilantes protecting the mine! And you were going to murder them. You monster…).
Running a campaign is a balancing act. You don’t want to front load it and give away all the juicy material for very little payoff, but you don’t want to string the characters along either. You need to know when to throw in a character’s long lost sister back for revenge or when to hold off playing that card. Unfortunately, knowing the right time only really comes from experience! Try to build so that the stakes are high and you get the payoff and the resolution you want, but foremost of all make sure everyone is having fun. Remember the old axiom:
“No D&D is better than bad D&D.”
Here are a few ways I used character backgrounds in an old campaign.
(SPOILERS for any of my players!)
The brother, Basan, of our Antivan rogue Izzar tried to have him killed to take over their father’s business (this is a rival, Step 4). Izzar survived but fled Antiva. Izzar has now gained fame and Basan is worried. Basan will be sending an assassin after Izzar to see him off once and for all. The players are also going to find out that a hugely important magical MacGuffin that they need to prevent the resurrection of an evil god is actually in the hands of a private collector. That collector? Yep, Izzar’s brother.
Another player’s character, Sifred, had a relationship with a noble even though she was considered “not suitable”. They had a baby but she lost it in childbirth (this was one of her secrets, Step 3). Except, no she didn’t! I decided that the mother of the noble had the child secreted away because it had a magical bloodline, and paid the doctors to lie to Sifred (my contribution to Step 3). Sifred’s brother Hjeldric (Step 4 above) was a mage himself and found out. Hjeldric disappeared and Sifred was worried for months. They ended up finding him in a mage prison where he had purposely been imprisoned to rescue Sifred’s now toddler child who was being experimented on. The ensuing scene was pretty memorable.