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The Campaign Starts in 3, 2, 1…

medieval house picture Your new campaign starts in a few hours, and you haven’t done half of the prep you’d planned to. How do you knock out the important bits in the time that’s left? Don’t Panic! No one ever has much prep done as they’d like– you’re just experiencing an extreme version of that common situation.

Many wise authors [1], source book writers, and posters strongly suggest that you not waste your time working up beautiful maps and histories in advance. Let’s get down to brass tacks…

Link Backgrounds

The characters need to have some reason to be together. You could run individual preludes for each of character, start the game in the bar, or have everyone work for the same employer. If none of those appeal to you, turn it into a question: ask the players how their characters all know each other. Throw in relationship ideas and twists based on your world and you’ll come up with great ties in no-time. Magesto has advice on other ways to gather PCs. For a group character creation session (a great way to harness everyone’s creativity), see Martin’s More is Better [2] PDF.

Numbers and Stats

Stat as much as you need to in order to feel comfortable. Be ready to improvise when the players do something wacky. They always do something you’re not ready for, no matter how much you prep.
Example: Duke Francis. You might not expect the PCs to get in a conflict with someone so much more powerful than they are… which is exactly when they do so! Or maybe they just decide that it’s time to negotiate a better pay rate, or bluff him. How to handle it when you have nothing prepped?
For 4e:

  1. Grab a “close enough” character (or monster) to start, like a human noble.
  2. Adjust him off the cuff for the power level you want. For 4e, each additional 2 levels adds 1 to every number and about 10 to his hit points.
  3. Alternately, treat the encounter as a skill challenge and use the DCs listed on DMG2 page 80.

For any other system, you use the same process. Grab a “close enough” character– a mall cop can be a policeman with -1 to his athletics checks, or a corporate mogul can use the skills of an “earnest reporter”– with new different personality and some wealth, he’s ready to go.

Tonight’s Adventure

There are several good approaches to a night’s adventure and they mix well. Villain spawned adventures are about bad people with a plan who act, spurring the PCs to oppose them. Task adventures are about an NPC (or a PC) with a necessary mission that requires some effort to accomplish. Intrigue adventures involve the PCs navigating factions, finding common ground, building alliances, and engaging their rivals. Each has a different approach listed below– but remember, mixing and matching is awesome. The heroes might start off on a task to recover a stolen idol, but when they reach the site, it’s already been looted. Recently. Tracking the thieves reveals that a villainous mastermind has his own plans for the idol…

Task Adventures: It’s rare that a player is ready to plan and act on the first night, before they’ve really experienced the setting. On the first night, it will probably be a patron, ally, or busybody hiring the PCs for a task. If you’re stuck for inspiration, Abulafia’s oracles and mission generators [3] can give you an outline to fill. If you just want a kick start, look at the ten word adventures [4] or random fantasy plots [5].

Villainous Plots: Adventures driven by a villain require a villainous plan, and often a villain. A tarot reading [6] from the villain’s point of view can give you a basic structure to work from and develops the villain a little more. Which is important if she comes on screen during the adventure.

Intriguing Plots: Sometimes the adventure’s all in town. Other times, you just need some additional complexity for your town. Either way, putting the town in crisis or introducing competing factions can develop a town quickly.

If you want town to be more than a rest stop, you’ll probably want to build in some conflict. One easy approach is to run through the town with Levi’s broken places [7] situation maker– now you can start hinting at the ills that need addressing. For a town full of intrigue, use his long knives [8] worksheet.

You can also build factions [9] together as a group, or solo. Give the whole community [10] something that stands out and needs that link them to elsewhere. These needs can be the source of future adventures!

The First Scene

You don’t have to start with a talky scene, though some players like a chance to get a handle on their characters in a calmer setting. The alternative is to start in media res— in action. Think of it like a Bond movie, where the initial five minutes is action packed but you don’t know why yet.

Make the first fight easy. The players won’t know their abilities, and certainly won’t have enough experience with their character to see opportunities and set each other up. Soon enough they’ll be performing well above expectation.

For D&D: Pick an encounter group/pattern and fill with monsters as seems fitting. Asamor’s encounter planner ties in to DDi, so you can select, look at, and print the creatures you’ll be using. For D&D insiders, WotC’s Encounter Builder makes it easy to add creatures to an encounter– though I do miss the functionality Asamor’s adds by using encounter templates like Commander and Troops. Page 58 of the DMG has several additional encounter templates.

Terrain is tricky. While your first fight shouldn’t be too complex, it’s never too early to start making fights dynamic and providing attractive elements. Chris expands [11] on Mike Mearl’s observations about exciting fights against solo monsters [12] and suggests that most fights benefit from battlefield objects and hazards. The DMG has good advice on terrain for different monster types: artillery monsters love to keep a chasm between you and it, brutes love to keep you away from their fragile team members, and so on. Johnn’s combat hazards series, particularly the terrain article, provides lots of good advice and inspiration. The DMG2 has a great section, Creating Movement, that begins on page 58 and offers good advice, interesting terrain powers, and some sample encounters.

The easiest solution is to take an encounter from one of the published adventures and delves [13] and just change the context. They’ve done the work– use it!

Mix it Up

The first session sets the tone and expectations [14] for the campaign. Don’t panic or over think it– but if you want a hack-fest, don’t make the players hunt around for their next fight. If you want intrigue, don’t have the night be straight up fights and bright colors. If skills are going important, call for skill rolls and challenges.

Look to DMG2 Chapter 3 for a good, much needed, treatment of skill challenges. When you have more time, the Wizard’s site has a whole series [15] addressing skill challenges: 17 articles so far. If you want an action-adventure feel, breaking and entering makes a good challenge type. If you want to emphasize research and preparation, a skill challenge benefiting from more intellectual skills is a good choice.medieval merchants

If you have more fights, be sure to mix up resistances and monster types so everyone can shine. Having everything be resistant to fire can make your pyromaniac grouchy.

Rewards are a good thing. If you can, try to make sure that the PCs land something cool on their first night– the thrill of victory makes returning all the sweeter.

When the players wander around town, it’s good to have a list of businesses and occupations [16]. Modern games benefit from having the yellow pages handy.

Quick Setting Pieces

The characters will probably treat their town where they start as homebase for a while. Inkwell ideas has a good post on design considerations [17] for the home hamlet or village.

Random Dungeon Map If you want a quick random dungeon (with many customizable parameters), you can’t beat Drow’s Random Dungeon Generator [18]. The monsters are 3e, but for any other game that’s easily suppressed with “Details: Summary” or even “Details: None” if you’re just looking for the map.

Faking NPC Complexity

Run a quick tarot reading [6] for key NPCs, like the leaders of factions the PCs will encounter, major villains, etc. My tarot article has a quick example and goes into more depth about using tarot readings. If you use Myers Briggs [19] personality types regularly (say, for your job), quickly assigning a character a type can remind you to model other approaches to life.

Another important bit is names. Print out a list of appropriate names for your culture. You never know when the interaction with a shopkeeper is going to turn personal– or when the drinking buddy at the bar will be hired to carry loot out from the dungeon. Abulafia’s random names [20] grouped by culture is a great way to build a culture specific name list. Print out a list or two of names from other cultures and use them for traders, elves, and other foreigners.

Take Notes

Just like players, things often fall into place during the session. Listen to what the PCs are looking for– providing what they want, even if it takes them some work to find, is good way to keep their interest.

What advice do you have for that rushed last minute prep? Do you have a “must have” tool that makes a campaign feel real right away? Please share your thoughts and advice in comments.

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "The Campaign Starts in 3, 2, 1…"

#1 Comment By Noumenon On April 12, 2010 @ 3:22 am

Important: The first day of a campaign usually requires a bigger push from the GM, since the players don’t know the setting yet.

Nice of you to point out what I was doing wrong two weeks after I started the campaign… don’t think I got the tone right either, should have got right into the dungeon crawl.

Would you really do the factions thing if you were down to your last day of prep? I tend to focus on individual NPCs.

#2 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On April 12, 2010 @ 9:52 am

Excellent ideas for last minute campaign prep.

Another option: Prep a fight, because that’s what everyone wants, at least initially. Include at least two factions, and leave it open-ended. Make it up as you go (if you have to), and take excellent notes, because the events of the first session will determine much of your initial campaign.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On April 12, 2010 @ 10:48 am

[21] – Factions to NPCs can go either way; if you have a struggle for the throne and ideas for several good characters, start with the characters you have in mind. From there, you can figure out which NPCs are working together– they’re your factions. If you have someone acting alone, it sounds like it’s time to figure out what support they have…

[22] – That’ll get things cooking, and be responsive to the PC’s actions! If you’re comfortable improvising, that could be all that you improvise from for the first session.

#4 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On April 12, 2010 @ 1:05 pm

[23] – I’d start with the assumption that you have SOMETHING prepped… I don’t have the intestinal or testicular fortitude to attempt this from a blank piece of paper.

#5 Comment By evil On April 12, 2010 @ 3:02 pm

I’m notorious for not prepping my games and doing almost everything on the fly, as my characters rip through towns and dungeons. For the first game of a new series, I always have two things ready, even if I don’t have anything else: the antagonist and a hook-type fight. If I have an antagonist with some depth, then I don’t necessarily need a major villain that intrigues the PCs. Plus, since everyone likes things blowing up, putting a fight together that players have some interest in at the very beginning of the game can do wonders to grab players.

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On April 12, 2010 @ 9:35 pm

[24] – I wonder how much prep you’ve done in your head, even if it’s not written on paper. It sounds like you do a great job with improvising– do you think your players know and like your all improvised style? Or do you have them fooled and they think you put in hours of prep?

#7 Comment By Foolster41 On April 13, 2010 @ 9:36 pm

Some good stuff here. I’m working on a star wars campaign (the theme is “scum and villainy”, with everyone are low-lifes.), and I’ve got quite a bit of prep, but I know somethings going to happen where I’ll need to think fast, so this is useful stuff. I’m going to keep this as reference.

#8 Comment By evil On April 14, 2010 @ 2:10 pm

[25] – Most of my players like my improv style, but I’ve met some who haven’t. To be frank, you’re right, I do tend to kick ideas around in my head and let them simmer. As I get farther into a campaign, I do require more prep, just because keeping records of dozens of characters is tough to do in one’s head. Improv is my key to a great game, especially at the beginning.

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On April 14, 2010 @ 3:32 pm

[26] – If nothing else, good low life names never hurt. Hope the links help.

[27] – I know that some GMs prep hard before their first session, then find that they players only get through a fraction of their prepared material, leaving less to prep for the next time. Your way sounds like it works great– making more reference material as the whole group gets more invested.

#10 Comment By evil On April 15, 2010 @ 9:34 pm

[28] – Once upon a time I was the guy who prepped a lot for the start of a campaign, right up until the day where I prepped for six months on a campaign that every single one of my players said wasn’t worth moving forward on. Ouch, I thought…

Also, but of possible interest to Foolster41, the AD&D “The Complete Book of Villains” has a great list of character traits (good and bad) which can really help spice up an basic NCP or feature character. This is where I pull most of my generic NPCs from.

#11 Comment By Scott Martin On April 18, 2010 @ 10:24 pm

The Tomb Show is doing a podcast series this month on [29].

Gamefiend is also doing a [30] on skill challenges.

#12 Pingback By Richichi Adventure Seeds : Guang Keshar On July 14, 2010 @ 2:13 pm

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#13 Comment By WatsonSE On October 6, 2010 @ 4:42 am

This is an excellent article. However, some of the links seems to go to sites that are no longer available.

Anyone that have the information in “Levi’s broken places situation maker” or the “long knives worksheet” available?. Or have the information been moved to a different web site?


#14 Comment By Scott Martin On December 28, 2010 @ 7:27 pm

Watson> Levi’s articles [Long Knives and Broken Places] have been fixed. Thanks for calling it to my attention!