5 DM Tips for Starting a Campaign

Posted on : 10-02-2010 | By : Brian | In : Advice, D&D


Recently I got a chance to talk to Jeff Greiner of The Tome Show about starting a campaign. You can hear the results of our conversation on episode 150, if you’re interested. I didn’t want to go over much of the ground that we covered in the podcast before its release, because I didn’t want to steal the episode’s thunder. Now that it’s out, though, I figured I’d go ahead and talk a little bit more about some of the things we went over in the podcast. In this post, I’m going to focus on tips for a DM starting a new campaign.

1. Start small.
As a DM, I know that world-building is a lot of fun. It can be very satisfying to spend hours upon hours detailing the specifics of your world; races, cultures, histories, factions, and so forth. When starting a new campaign in a new setting, though, it’s best to focus most of your energies on the area that the PCs are going to come into immediate contact with, then work your way out from there. That isn’t to say that planning for the future is a bad thing; it can be very useful to be able to pull the name of a town or faction or country out of your hat when asked for it. However, there’s a good chance that the PCs will do something unexpected, like following a hook that you didn’t deliberately place to an area that you haven’t detailed, and all that planning might go to waste. Worse yet, the needs of your campaign might call for you to change all of your carefully detailed setting components, which is why it’s important to . . .

2. Stay supple.
What I mean by that is be flexible, maximize your ability to roll with the punches. You may have a very specific idea of what the world looks like in your head, and that’s fine. But realize that it may not be the same idea that the players have in their heads (and their ideas might differ from each others’ ideas). Realize also that this is their world as much as it is yours. You may be laying the groundwork and setting things in motion, but they’re the ones who have to adventure there and spend their time there. If you want your game to be successful, then you’re going to want to make it an enjoyable place to be; this means that you’ll often have to change the details of the setting to make things more fun for everyone.

A good habit to get into is to create setting details in vague generalities at first, getting more specific as the PCs start to focus their attention on a particular aspect. For example, when you’re detailing a city, faction, dungeon, villain, or other element of your setting, start with an elevator pitch. Detail the element in one or two sentences that are punchy and descriptive, something attention-grabbing. Once the players express interest, that’s your cue to start fleshing that component out a little bit more.

Another way of staying supple is to create and plan encounters and adventures so that you can easily re-skin fights, rearrange the order of scenes, and drop things into the adventure when needed. This way, when the players decide to do something you don’t anticipate, at least you have the tools you need to improvise. As always, the Page 42 Table is your friend (though you’ll want to keep up with the most current version of it).

3. Test the waters.
Sometimes adventure hooks can be hard to come up with, because you don’t know exactly what your players will be interested in. Instead of trying to come up with the perfect adventure hook for the party, come up with half a dozen decent adventure hooks that you can easily work with. Throw them all out there in the first session or two, and see which ones your players express interest in. Once they do, you know where your adventure should be heading; often this will also indicate where the campaign (or at least the rest of the tier) should be heading, as well.

Remember to stay supple here. You’re coming up with a fair number of adventure hooks, but that doesn’t mean that you have to plan three or four encounters for each one, most of which won’t even see the light of day. Instead, try and plan your encounters to be able to pull double duty with adventure hooks. In your first session, you’ll likely get through two or three combat encounters (if that), as well as some role-playing, social, and investigation encounters. If you plan six adventure hooks, and three or four of them take place outside of town, something you can do to create flexibility for yourself is plan a few wilderness encounters that can take place en route to any of those hooks that occur outside of town. If a few more take place in town, plan an urban encounter or two that work for them. Focus more on the mechanics when building these encounters, and come up with a flavorful way of describing the encounters depending on the hook being pursued. For example, if one of your hooks involves orc raiders and the other involves a necromancer in a tower, your wilderness encounter might include any combination of monsters that work well in tandem, as long as they can be easily described as either orcs or the necromancer’s minions.

These initial encounters may feel a little generic to you, but that’s okay. Once the PCs have started down a particular path, you’ll have plenty of time to create encounters that are more customized to what they’re doing.

4. Use your players’ backgrounds.
One great way to create adventure hooks that your players will be interested in is to pay attention when they’re creating characters. This is one reason why I like to have a group character generation session before starting the game proper; not only are the players more likely to create a group of characters that work well together and make sense together, you get to hear them talk about who their characters are, react to each others’ descriptions, and take notes about what they think is cool. If you can translate those cool ideas into adventure hooks, then you’ll probably have plenty of fodder for adventures that your players will enjoy.

Pay particular attention to specific people that your players mention in their backgrounds. If a player mentions a person, make that person into an NPC. That player clearly places importance on him or her, so bringing that NPC into the game will have some impact on that player. Better yet, if the NPC is the driving force behind a quest hook (for example, if monsters put that NPC in jeopardy), then that player is much more likely to become interested in that quest hook, and may pull the other players with him or her. This works even better if a single NPC is mentioned in multiple PCs’ backgrounds, which is much more likely to happen if they create their characters together. This kind of collaboration should be encouraged, because it makes your job easier!

5. Take notes.
This is really important throughout the entire campaign, but it’s especially important in your first few sessions. You’ll want to remember NPCs your players reacted to (whether they loved them or hated them), quests they expressed interest in, things they did that might have consequences later, information they found out, enemies that survived, and so forth. Keep a record of this stuff whenever possible, so you can use it again later. A forgotten detail is often a missed opportunity to do something cool later, so try to remember as much as possible. Further, the more you remember and bring back into the spotlight, the more believable your world will be. NPCs that recur will have a greater impact, and consequences of things that happened in the first session will lend your campaign a sense of realism that your players will appreciate.

The Most Important Tip
I know I said I was giving five tips, but I couldn’t write this article without giving you the most important one: have fun! Remember that this is a game, and the purpose of it is to have a good time with your friends. If you’re not having fun, they’ll know it and the game won’t be fun for anyone. If you’re going to start a new campaign, make sure it’s something you want to do. It can be a daunting task, but it’s very rewarding; you get to share in your players’ victories, and you get to bring them to the brink of defeat. Have a good time doing it, and you’re already halfway to a great game!

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