8 Campaign Starter Tips
From Brian W. M.
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0186
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8 Campaign Starter Tips
When planning a new campaign I think in terms of overall campaign feel. Then I think in terms of getting the campaign moving. How am I going to gather my PCs together? What is the hook that will put the PCs on the adventurous path? What will keep the group glued together? Now, if you are starting a campaign, hopefully you have floating in the back of your head ideas for major story arcs in the campaign. Use these arcs and themes as inspiration for your campaign start-up.
I also feel you need to introduce the players to the campaign villain. Even if they don’t know this NPC is the villain it’s just good story etiquette to at least introduce him (even if it is as a friend or mentor or thru one of the villain’s lackeys). If not the campaign villain, at least the first major level boss they will encounter (something more than the bad guy at the end of the first adventure). This article assumes that you have an adventure you want to get the players into.
The key to the gathering is veteran players and any players that have GM’d before. They should know the position you are in and will help pull the group together. Your players will buy into whatever fabrication you create to all be together- -any reason will do. Use one and move on to the hook. The gathering will strain the suspension of disbelief to its limit, which is why you don’t linger waiting for PC interaction at this point. This is all OK; your players will remember the hook, not the reason for the Gathering.
Some Background Ideas:
- Pair or team up characters likely to be together. This increases plausibility.
- Same race
- Similar profession
- Friends or relatives
- A cop and a criminal (in custody)
- Require players to provide reasons why they are in whatever starting location (city, town, prison) the gathering is being held within; although, the burden of why they attended the gathering is still on you.
- Coincidence. Have them at the right place at the wrong time.
- Thrown in the same jail
- Owing the same guy a favor
- Sitting in the same bar
- Stopped in different cars at the same red light
Any outside force acting on the gathered players as a group. Combat recommended. If not combat, some kind of conflict targeting or involving the group as a whole.
- An Ambush.
- On players
- Between 2 other parties with PCs caught in the crossfire
- A cry for help (legitimate or as part of an ambush). Have faith in your players to respond. Another twist is to have a legitimate cry for help from a bad guy.
- A pronouncement from on high (loss of free will).
- A sentence (like exile)
- A request or demand for aid. “Rescue my daughter.” (“Please” is optional.)
- Powerful NPC putting a group together to perform X task (again loss of free will) and incorporates the Gathering.
- A newspaper to research articles
- A King to spy on neighbors
- A deep cover spy to report back information
- A new unit in a mercenary group
- A dilettante to mount an expedition
- A college to research anything
- A guild to acquire any rare item
- The FBI to consult on x-files
A reason for the group to stay together after the Hook. Sometimes provided for in the hook.
- Loot that leads to actual adventures or side quests.
- From a dead body (party must find a place of safety to split up)
- Group acquires and then loses (or it’s taken) something important (adventure becomes one of reacquisition)
- A written document the players can’t read on the spot (foreign language, code)
- A chest or box they can’t open on the spot (and can be taken by villain’s faction before they open it)
- A magical or significant item that points towards adventure
- Betrayal. An NPC ally, protector, or mentor used in the Gathering now screws the PCs and gets away. The adventure becomes one of pursuit.
- Ally. An NPC the party saved (from death, usually) turns out to be a potential patron, mentor, ally, or just someone with a plot lead into the actual adventure.
- Cry for further assistance (reward optional)
- “You are so brave you must rescue my…”
- “You are so noble and of such good character I can only trust you to…”
- “Seeing as you saved my life all I can offer you in return is this map showing the location of…”
- Cry for further assistance (reward optional)
In many cases, it will be easier to start with a close look at the hints the party needs as seeds to the first adventure, and then backwards engineer how to plant the seeds of that adventure and your campaign within the framework of The Gathering, The Hook, and The Glue.
In the aftermath of these initial encounters, the characters will start to interact as they now have common experience binding them and serving as an icebreaker. I usually do not even bother with asking players to describe their characters to each other until this process is complete. I have also found that the players will define much of their character’s personality during this initial campaign set-up period and diving right in gives them time to formulate ideas in their own minds about their characters before committing to them openly.
Separating the campaign start-up into these three concepts has helped me launch my games with faster immersion and better character development. Hopefully they will help you as well.
Find An Event, Make It Different, Leave A Mystery
From Otto Cargill
Starting a campaign can often be more difficult than continuing an already established one. This much is obvious since, once a campaign is started and characters are formed, it is easier to create adventures based on previous events. To help, here are some of the methods I use based on my Weird Wars: Blood on the Rhine campaign set late in World War II.
Find An Event
Whether your campaign is fantasy, historical, sci-fi, or horror, there is always some event in that world’s history that you can get your characters involved with. My own campaign started June 6th, 1944 with the characters arriving on the beaches of Normandy. Setting your first adventure around major events gives the opportunity for high energy and exciting intros. Picture your characters helping to shut down the energy shields on Endor or assaulting Isengard and you immediately have setting and motivation.
Make It Different
While everyone knows what happens at D-Day, Endor, and Isengard, the events may be different from an individual aspect or because of a different set of circumstances. With my beach landing, the characters experienced the terror of approach, the shock of artillery, and the beaching of their craft. All happened during the true events. However, upon reaching the beach, the PCs found less resistance than the players and the PCs expected. As anyone who’s seen Saving Private Ryan can attest to, a quiet beach with few guards on D-Day is unusual to say the least.
Leave A Mystery
So you have your players expecting one set of events based on their knowledge of the history or storyline and you have just thrown them a curveball. They may have passed the initial trial by fire but you can’t give them the entire ball of wax. For example, my soldiers storm the beaches, take out a machine gun nest and begin investigating the strangely quiet trenches along the area.
Behind the scenes, an SS Blood Mage has already vaporized the information and evidence in the German command center as well as witnesses who were too low ranking to know as much as they saw. When the players reach the scene all they find are scorch marks, burned corpses, and strange runic marks. This gives them a little scare, some information about the villain, and hopefully sparks enough curiosity that they come back next week for the second adventure.
Be creative and exciting in what you do. Your first adventure can set the tone for your entire campaign and establish most of your initial adventures as well.
Here are a few ideas for what to do on a first adventure.
First, have a basic idea of the backstory for your plot. It helps quite a bit if you can do a little foreshadowing of things to come, or have some hints dropped here and there. There was a very good article on prophecy a few issues ago, if I recall correctly. If you have your backstory plotted out, it’s not difficult to drop some prophetic hints out there to help “reel them in.” [ Editor’s Note: Check out discussions on the use of prophecy in the following issues:
RPT# 172 – Talking The Talk: NPC Speech Patterns
RPT#164 – 9 Ways To Bring Town Guards To Life
RPT#162 – Creating And Using Omens
RPT#150 – Celebration Of 150 Issues: Reader’s Tips Special
RPT#127 – Using ‘Top 7 Lists’ To Help Assimilate Published Game Worlds
RPT#71 – 5 Ways You Can Make Travel Interesting Or Important ]
Second, another item of pre-game preparation. Work with the players on the backgrounds for their characters. Try to get their backgrounds involved with the world. Bear in mind that the player or the character doesn’t necessarily have to know the details of what you come up with. For example, a character could be a farmboy from a backwater planet, but the GM decides he has a history that will play a major part in the upcoming war against the evil empire.
Once you have a handle on character backgrounds and such, it’s easier to give them bits and pieces of info, roleplay, and the odd prop to help get them feeling involved.
Third, reducing the fumble factor is even more important, IMHO, for that first game. You want to have your notes prepared and easily accessible, any props ready to hand, encounters prepared, and contingency plans for when those pesky players decide to go down the EAST branch of that road instead of west…
The first game, more than any other, should go smoothly. Think of it as your “first impression,” so to speak. Even if you have played with your group for quite some time, and this is the third campaign you’ve run, it’s still the first impression for that campaign.
Fourth, during game play, watch for opportunities to help the players get into character. If you have a character with a predilection for helping the downtrodden, give him a few downtrodden to help out. If you wish, they may even come back in future episodes. Perhaps that old beggar the paladin helped out of the way of a rushing wagon comes into possession of information the paladin would find useful later. Take copious notes of odd events and such.
Fifth, more notes. The players go to a tavern to talk. You didn’t prepare extensively for that contingency so you use your favorite method to craft a fine tavern from scratch (more on this later). Take notes of your creation. Jot down the name of the place, the name of the barkeep, perhaps a bit of description. You never know, if your players stay in that town for a while, it may become their regular watering hole!
Finally, a note on on-the-spot creation. We’ve all had to do it. Tavern names, NPC names, etc. I recommend three things.
- A good naming book. There are authors’ tools that are specifically designed to help with character naming. Baby name books are a moderately good source and economical.
- I highly recommend AEG’s “Toolbox” book (SKU #8514). A plethora of charts, tables and other randomness. A few dice, and some jotted notes, and voila, the contents of a library.
- Another product I recommend highly, that, with a modicum of effort, is usable with the two aforementioned items. If you have a computer handy at your gaming table, the Tablesmith program is excellent. (http://www.mythosa.net/Utils.html)
Make Simple PCs And Pick A Star
From Rodrigo C
Hi, I’m from Mexico City and have been a Game Master for about 8 years. The games I have directed so far are Star Wars (West End version, my favorite), Vampire the Masquerade, Sabbat, Mage the Ascension and the Technocracy. I’ve been asked to direct games on strange occasions and many times I have started short chronicles just for the fun of it, or to show “normal” people what RPGs are all about.
So, many times I have faced the “first adventure” situation. I have some tips here.
- Make the simplest characters first. If you are a new Game Master, or your players are new and naive, don’t start playing with complex, multiclass, alien or strange characters. Use the simplest templates first so everyone will know what to expect in terms of roleplaying. This will make a rich, simple, and funny chronicle without the kind of conflicts strange characters tend to generate. Later on, everyone will look for the complex characters and maybe that will be the source of fun, but that’s not for the first session.
- Use the cliches that work for the particular setting. Picture the first thing that comes to your mind with the title of the game. This encourages you and your players to give their best and have fun. For example, in Dungeons and Dragons, you should at least use a Dungeon as a part of the first adventure. In Vampire games I always play the “feeding” part for the first session (it’s always fun to watch new born vampires trying to feed from humans without breaking the masquerade, they always fail and some storytellers *never* make their players play this seriously).
- Pick a starring character for the first chronicle and “make” everything fit into their story with the other characters. The “favorite character” should just be the one that you are more drawn to, because you are human after all, and you have your tastes and preferences. It’s easier to make a natural story about a character you like already. RPGs are very subjective (rules are a tool, they should not bind you right?). It doesn’t hurt to have a favorite character the first time, and gives you a leading vector in the first session.
Most action pictures use this principle. There is a leading character whose story we follow and one by one the rest of characters start to join the chronicle. Use as example the Final Fantasy Games, or the first movie of X-Men, where you start with two characters who already know each other or who make acquaintances in the first battle and then start to know the rest of the allies as they make new opponents. Good mechanics, I guarantee. Also, I recommend to pick the character with the most “social” attitude, like a leader, a commander, an artist, etc.
I wish you luck and fun in every new game you play. All these tips are proven with new and old players, and with many different settings. I hope they work for you too.
Start With Action!
From Mark L. Chance
Start your first session with action, meaning a conflict or problem of some sort. Once characters are made and you’ve set the initial scene, either give each player a reason or have the player give you a reason why their respective characters are at the scene. Then, once the scene is set, break into the action.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Ensure the characters are the people at the scene most capable of dealing with the sudden problem.
- Keep the number of extras in your scene to a manageable number. You don’t want the NPCs overshadowing the characters or diverting too much attention away from the characters.
- Have at least a brief backstory explaining why this particular trouble starts at this particular location. It doesn’t matter if the characters don’t have a clue about this backstory while the excrement hits the revolving blades.
- Don’t worry if none of the characters know each other in- game. It doesn’t take players long to figure out that, yes, that other fellow is a player character and we’re supposed to end up as an adventuring group. In other words, the starting action provides a convenient cover for the metagame aspects of party formation.
Starting right away with action has several advantages to the standard meet-and-greet in a tavern.
- It gives the players the chance to try out their characters immediately.
- Action is more exciting than inaction. Keep in mind: Action is not limited to violence or chases, as anyone who has ever watched a spirited parliamentary debate can attest.
- The event itself can serve as a springboard into other scenarios. An NPC who witnesses the characters at work may be impressed enough by them to pay for their services. The opposite may be true as well: An NPC witness may label the characters as potential troublemakers or even threats.
Of course, a good example always helps. Here is an initial scenario I used for a Stormbringer campaign several years ago.
The opening scene was a merchant ship sailing to a bustling port city. Each player had to submit to me why they were on the ship and whether or not this reason would come up in conversation. I had a handout ready that described each character and the few major NPCs. It also included tidbits of background information that could be deduced from being at sea with said people for several days. The starting action was a poker game in which the various characters were either participants or spectators. One NPC gambler was a vengeful sorcerer. Another was a wealthy merchant.
During game play, we actually played cards, using poker chips as gold pieces. Conversation was in-character. At an appropriate time, I let slip to a player that the sorcerer was cheating. In-game, I used two decks of cards, one stacked so that I could pull the sorcerer’s winning hands. Immediately, accusations fly. Since only one character saw the cheating, not everyone was inclined to believe him. Even a few rounds of violence erupted before more level heads prevailed.
The poker game accomplished several goals:
- It introduced all of the characters as well as a few key NPCs.
- It gave everyone a chance to briefly see how combat works, which was important since no one had played Stormbringer before.
- The wicked sorcerer was set up as both a villain as well as someone with an axe to grind against at least one character.
- The merchant, impressed by how needless violence was avoided, was impressed by the coolness under fire of other characters.
- Most importantly, it was fun.
Once in town, the merchant provided my hook to create the party, hiring the characters on as bodyguards for an overland journey. The time in which the characters took care of personal business and made ready to accompany the merchant gave the wicked sorcerer time to plot his revenge against those who had embarrassed him.
Voila! The campaign had begun!
Use An Urban Setting
From Mark W.
I find city adventures an easy way for new/low level PCs to get their feet wet. There are a lot of hooks that a DM can use in a city setting depending on what the DM and/or player want to do. Ranging from hack & slash style (taking out a gang of thugs, joining a gladiatorial fight) to more storylinish adventures (spywork, diplomacy, or just job work can be fun in the right frame of mind).
The characters typically are residents of the city/town and as things start I throw out a couple different hooks and see what the players take interest in. They are free to take one or all or I’ve even had parties make a plot line up that I didn’t even think about.
Best thing about this kind of adventure session is that if things get out of hand and there is a good chance that the party will be wiped out I can easily come up with day- savers, such as town guards coming to the rescue, a passing cleric or paladin, or an NPC inadvertently finding the clue that’s stalling the adventure. Not that these hooks are new– I just find that in a city setting they are easier to believe.
Use Unusual Monsters Or Foes
I like to go through a monster catalog and mark monsters that the PCs could handle. I then start to think of a way in which I could use them for the first adventure. I think that the old kobold, goblin, orc routine at first level gets boring and overdone, so I do something different. I have more fun this way and it makes the PCs think “what have we gotten ourselves into!”
Roleplay The Set-Up First, Then Make PCs
One of my tricks is to ask the players, before the game session and characters are crafted, what their character would do in the opening scene. Whether it’s by email, Instant Message, or in person, this allows for a little roleplaying before everything starts.
I always have a “hook”. For instance, in my current campaign, all my PCs, for one reason or another, answered an ad for a group of mercenaries. But I also allowed the players to tailor their first introduction to the new campaign world.
Because this is done before the session where everyone pounds out character sheets and dice rolls, it gets the players thinking about their character and what they can plan for them to be–the first step towards a well-rounded character. Even the hack-and-slash players in the group like this, even if it’s just “Tunk probably comes to the meeting to see who he can beat up.” It’s a chance for them to have my undivided attention for a few minutes. Those who are avid roleplayers (those who write 15-page backstories) will spend an entire hour, sometimes, actually RPing the first encounter with my NPCs and the environment.
What this allows me to do is to immediately drop the PCs into interaction with each other once we start playing. I don’t have to ask for descriptions and actions, I can narrate the entire “opening scene” without interruption, and spotlight each of the PCs for a moment.
Don’t be afraid to play by the rules of the world either. If getting in a bar fight would get them all arrested or thrown out of the city, and they start that bar fight, then throw them in jail. (But make it seem like that was the last thing you expected them to do.) If you’ve GMed before, you’ve learned that they can usually get themselves in far more trouble without any help from you than you could ever dream of getting them into.
If nothing else, make the first session detailed. Describe the random street goons. Give specifics (even if you make them up on the spot) of every building they enter. Put 3 alehouses in the city instead of one. Hand out a map showing every major street and location of the city, or every city and large town in the area.
Make your plot hooks numerous and varied and complicated if you want. They’ve got all the time in the world (or campaign) to pick one and follow it. Make them big, or subtle, or both. Go for “cinematics.” You’re going to be buried in plotlines in later game sessions, now’s the time to play around a little bit.
For more campaign starter tips, also see:
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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
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Campaign World Theme Ideas
From The Dungeon Master’s Guild
Dungeon Master’s Guild – Guild of Dungeon Masters for the D&D RPG [Comment from Johnn: Here are some campaign ideas snarfed from a thread from the Dungeon Master’s Guild Yahoo! group.]
- I ran a very fun D&D game where I stole the basic idea from the Redwall novels by Brian Jacques. All the characters are different anthropomorphic real world animals. For example, the fighter might be a badger, the thief a rat, the wizard a shrew.Like the Redwall novels, I kept the PCs animals among the smaller creatures and mostly ground based, the focus being on mice–kind of like the Mrs. Brisby books as well.It was a lot of fun and you can make up new stat mods for them…
- The George Lucas Uniclimate planet–like Lucas did in the Star Wars movies. Endor–the forest planet. Hoth–the frozen planet. Tattooine–the desert planet. Coruscant–the technology planet. You get the idea.
- Active Volcano Island. Large chain of islands still being formed by active volcanoes. Less incentive to build permanent structures. Haven for fire elementals. Dungeons and catacombs (that possibly contain huge amounts of wealth) being filled with lava.
- Dark City world–see the movie, go from there.
- Silicone based world–instead of carbon based. Different energy sources. Also gives the DM more freedom to play around with creatures. Use the templates of existing creatures, just change their appearance. Less player knowledge incorporated into the game.
- Steal another plane of existence and use it as your base plane–just look in the Manual of the Planes.
- Change one very important characteristic of Earth. One change could affect a lot! Two moons–crazy tides, different cycles, extra lycanthropes. Heavy gravity/light gravity– could change musculoskeletal system of all creatures, affect magic, who knows. 70% land, 30% water = water shortages, more and different civilizations, go crazy.
- The Smoke Ring. Hijacked from Niven, the world is a ring of air around a star. Towns, cities, and so on, are on clumps of vegetation orbiting the star. Hotter in closer, cold farther out. A large (3-4 earths) clump of old decaying vegetation collects debris from the rest of the ring with the interior being very nasty with fungus, etc. I ran my players through some of this and they voted that this world was the hardest for them, even when they had a magic carpet!
- Psi-kings rule the world with everyone else being thralls to their will. Adventurers are anarchists/servants…
- Fantasy world inside of an Asimov-style galaxy. Characters can slowly figure this out. Yes there is a space port on their world but it is far away from where they hang out. This one could go in almost any direction.
- Souls escaping the afterlife. Could be brutal and short if escaping from the nether regions. How about evil souls escaping from the good-aligned planes?
- Souls journeying to “the Good Lands”. The Egyptian mythology has the souls making an epic journey to reach their reward. The adventurers start out with their funeral gifts, but these could be taken from their tombs which would make the items disappear on the PCs’ end.
- “When in doubt, close your eyes and pick any two GURPS books off the shelf at random.” — Robin’s Laws
- Robin Hood/Voodoo: valiant swamp-fighters seek to defend helpless peasantry from immoral voudon priests and their zombie minions.
- Ancient Rome/In Nomine: Celestial and Ethereal beings wage a secret war with the fate of a mighty empire hanging in the balance! (PCs may either be members of said empire or celestial beings, depending on level of campaign).
- Aztec/Scarlet Pimpernel: A secret group of feathered warriors seeks to free noble prisoners destined for sacrifice to the Jaguar-Headed God. General campaign might focus on strife between bloodthirsty men in power and those seeking to overthrow them.
- Cliffhangers/Ancient Greece: if your players aren’t imagining Ray Harryhousen claymation monsters, you aren’t running this one right. Perilous sea voyages, dangerous oracles, gods on earth, mighty heroes, monsters, and an honest-to-goodness precedent for chaining helpless maidens to a rock.
- Espionage/Middle Ages I: a game of court intrigue, with Italian poisoners, French high society, plots, alliances, and counter-plots. For a James Bond/Espionage feel, involve some alchemy and/or small clockwork devices.
- Warehouse 23/China: the Celestial Emperor and the Khan vie for possession of mystic artifacts that will enable one or the other to conquer this world and others.
- Swashbucklers/Cthulupunk: in a world dominated by Spanish gold and the Inquisition, where the free-thinking Renaissance has been crushed under the heel of tyranny, a shipful of brave truehearts must stop an ancient evil from rising from the depths of the ocean…
- Plague world: something like the dark ages in Europe. Very low magic, high ignorance and superstition, lots of disease and hardship. Based on modified or old (inaccurate) maps of Europe.
- Water world: minus Kevin Costner. (Could also be based more on C.J. Cherryh’s 2nd Gate book “The Well of Shiuan”).
- Altered atlas: take a high detailed modern map of Toronto, Detroit, Nagoya, or any big city that’s far away from where your players live and use it faithfully as the location for all the adventures. Maps of the metro system, underground shopping malls, uni-campuses might all make excellent dungeons. Change the place names (or don’t), add magic and monsters.
- Bird world: I used to have an old Audubon field guide for bird watchers. Thinking back on it, all those entries and profiles kind of reminded me of character description.
- No surface: how about a campaign world that is endless dungeons and caverns. Like the Underdark, I guess, but emphasize the fact that there is really no surface. None, nowhere.
- The Cube: anyone see this movie? It’s essentially a brutal dungeon crawl, with zero-level characters, no EQ, and nothing but hellatious traps.
Thanks to the following for thread contributions: JB, OPper, Vahjra the world builder, SCA Bard, Joshua B.
From Kelvin G.[ re: RPT#185 – Innkeeper Intrigue ]
Sean makes a very good point here, with respect to population distribution of intelligent races. If you pay attention to some of the details written in the D&D 3E Monster Manual, you’ll find that you can reconstruct what it is like in an alien community. I’ll stay away from beholder and illithid and yuan-ti communities, since they’ve been done to death, but taking Sean’s gargoyle example, it is possible to get some insight into gargoyle society:
- Most probably hierarchical according to size and strength
- Most likely to dwell in small communities, with the elite of the society banded together into hunter groups that specialize in deadly, surgical ambushes (capitalizing on their ability to stay motionless for long periods – ideal assassin/sniper)
- Most likely to have long periods of inactivity punctuated by short bursts of intense activity
- Species propagation most likely via budding, or character- istic avian-like eggs
And so on and so forth.
By spending some time constructing monster societies like this, one can build up a very rich world that is not necessarily dominated by the typical human/elven/dwarven/halfling mix. It also sets the tension for a campaign: a community of gargoyles, split by their ideals, one faction seeing the benefits of peace between the races of the Underdark, sets out to craft an alliance between drow, gargoyle, duergar, and grells.
The other faction, disbelieving of the peace possibilities, but unwilling to hinder the first delegation (hedging their bets, who knows, it might actually work!), stay back home and continue on with life.
And yet another faction, drastically opposed to such an alliance for whatever reason, brings in the PCs to help disrupt the meetings with guerilla attacks, chuckling with glee when the PCs suddenly find themselves caught between everybody as scapegoats. How will they get out?
In this way, the sky is the limit!