Starting a New D&D Campaign in 7 Steps
This article offers suggestions and tips for Dungeon Masters who are starting a new campaign for their D&D gaming group.
By R. Nelson Bailey
Starting a new campaign can be a daunting task for a Dungeon Master. Here is my list of seven tips to help any DM effortlessly start their campaign and players on the right track.
1. Choose a Campaign Theme: A theme is a specific premise using archetypal locations, environments, and cultures to differentiate the new campaign from the previous ones. The theme sets the tone for the entire campaign, giving it a unique color and feel. Not all of the campaign's adventures need to stick with the theme, but the DM should keep the theme in mind when choosing most adventures. There is no limit to the theme’s archetypes — you can use a broad one or a narrow, mundane or exotic. Here are few examples of campaign themes of varied types:
The adventures start in large city. Adventures will mostly be of the urban type, centered on various city features and landmarks.
An enchanted forest that features mostly elves and fey type creatures.
All of the player characters are from a tribe of desert-dwelling barbarians. Adventures take place in a desert wilderness. Survival in this harsh environment will be a factor.
A campaign that features a lot of extraplanar locales and monsters.
The characters are from a seafaring nation and all of the adventures taking place on the high seas.
A mono-race/class/social class group of player characters: all pirates, all gnomes, all magic-users, all nobility (or all four), etc.
2. Define Races and Classes: The campaign theme will give you some idea of what races and classes will best fit the adventure environment. Obviously, there will be types of races, classes, and nationalities that would be out of place in a themed campaign. Before the players roll up new characters, the DM should give them a list of all the races and classes they can play in this campaign. Most DMs never think to impose these boundaries on their players, but it does have the benefit that there won’t be any oddball races or classes that clash with the rest of the player characters. It also helps the players and DM stick to the campaign theme, lending it greater verisimilitude.
3. Define Alignments: Alignment is also source of potential conflict. I tell my players they must collectively decide their alignment preference before any new characters for the campaign are created. They can have a good-aligned party that includes some neutrals (or vice-versa), they can have evil-aligned with a few neutrals (or vice-versa), or they can be all the same moral alignment (all good, neutral, or evil, that is). This way there won’t be those problematic parties with a mix of good and evil characters that cause so much difficulty further down the road. Furthermore, some alignments might clash with the campaign's theme, and should be restricted for some or some all character classes.
4. Character Background: Give each character a background that details how they got to this point, usually the start of their adventuring career (i.e. starting at 1st level) . You do not need to write a hyper-detailed biography of the player character, but you should include their home land and town, plus family, siblings, and other important figures in their life. As a rule of thumb, I give each character at least three contacts. These NPCs can play active roles in the character’s life, and can be the springboard for an adventure or two.
5. Character Personality: Not so much a task for the DM, but their input is needed nonetheless. Encourage players to give their character a personality, and a motivation for becoming an adventurer. This need not be a multi-page dissertation — just a quick description will suffice. This keeps players from just playing essentially the same character each campaign. While there is nothing inherently wrong with playing the same character, a fully fleshed out character will be more interesting and memorable.
6. Pick a Base of Operations: This is often a home city or town the player characters reside in which they will return to between adventures to rest and do upkeep. Draw a map of the city and note important NPCs and businesses. It is also helpful to map the territory surrounding the city or town out to 30 miles. You do not need to describe every person, place, and business in the city — just a handful of the ones that will be most integral to the players' at the start of their career. Important ones to include are suppliers of adventuring goods, blacksmith/armorer, potion dealer, higher-level wizard (or two), local temples, gem merchant, and so forth. You can add more details as as the campaign progresses and the need arises.
7. Adventure Ideas: Create a number of adventure rumors the players can discover. I usually make 10 to 20 at the start of a new campaign. The rumors might not always be true, but they will always lead to an adventure. Let they players hear three or four rumors at the start of the campaign, so they can choose what adventure they want to follow. The rumor they choose to follow then is fleshed out into an adventure. You can dole out new rumors as the campaign progresses. Here are a few examples from a previous campaign:
The Helwessen Shrine is paying good money for the sap of the lich tree. They are paying ten times the going rate for a pot of the stuff (50 gp each).
An rogue golem is rampaging in the countryside west of Strekkenbourg. The crazed monster smashes in cottages and destroys livestock. The wizard, Prestivan the Marvelous, looks for a way to stop it and some assistance.
A number of people have missing from the village of Hraltha, which lies southeast of Strekkenbourg. The missing villagers mysteriously disappeared from their cottages in the middle of the night, and no trace has been found of them.
Strange lights have been seen at night above the tower of the sorcerer, Zendrical. It is said these lights are the evil spirits he summons to guard the horde of treasures he stolen from nearby barbarian tombs.
In the ruins of an ancient necropolis not far from here, travelers report seeing a ghostly woman. Even more remarkable, they could hear the ghost-woman crying and wailing. It is believed that she is the ghost of a long dead queen weeping over her lost lover. The lost city lies just inside the Aroon Hills.
The following is an example of five starting campaign themes I created for my gaming group. I let the players read over the descriptions and choose the one they liked the best.
SETTINGS AND SET-UPS FOR THE NEXT CAMPAIGN
1. Survival Clans: The characters begin as part of a tight-knit clan. The clan has long had a feud that with a neighboring clan that has gone on continuously for the last one-hundred years. The campaign will take place in a rural setting with no large towns or cities nearby. Most adventures will center on clan survival, and the constant battles and ruses each side uses to gain the upper hand in the conflict. Characters can expect limited help from the clan, but would only have to turn over a portion of treasure to them. At some point around 1st or 2nd level, the PCs end up in a vast underground mega-dungeon that is used by both sides in their conflict. The PCs have little or no equipment and must fight for shear survival to get out. The PCs are allowed to do as they wish, but must adhere to clan rules.
Character Classes Allowed: This setting is good for any character classes.
Alignments Allowed: All alignments are allowed, but good works the least best.
Races Allowed: Any race is allowable.
2. The Temple Where Everyone Knows Your Name: All the player characters start their career as members of a temple or monastery. Characters will have to follow the code of the temple (what that is depends on the temple’s patron god). Those that transgress against the code will be punished (player will get a complete list of the codes at the start of the campaign). Adventures will usually revolve around the characters being assigned a mission to accomplish by their superiors. How much autonomy the PCs have depends on alignment; those of chaotic persuasion will have more than those that are lawful. Character will have to donate most of their cash and magic found, but can expect assistance from higher-ups. As they gain in ranks, they will have more duties, but also more leeway in choosing their adventures. The characters will all have the same religion affiliation, and if it is part of the Deimos religion, will all worship whatever saint the temple is dedicated to. The only other religion that would work in this setting is Danaan (Celtic).
Character Classes Allowed: Classes allowed really depends on deity or saint the characters follow.
Alignments Allowed: Chaotic alignments are the most difficult to work with. All characters must be the same alignment, however.
Races Allowed: Humans will work the best. Elves will not so much. Halflings and dwarves will work to a lesser extent.
3. Just Hangin’ with Me Maties: The characters are part of a loosely affiliated band of thugs and pirates (think of a biker gang as a good analogy). The character will begin as new recruits to a pirate organization in a city in the Pirate Coast. The group is made up of freebooters and mercenaries motivated by greed. A surly, hard drinking lot they crave excitement and adventure, too. Player characters will have quite a bit of autonomy, but must follow the gang’s code and make sure to pay off the higher-ups a portion of money found. There will be a lot of rivalry with other pirate gangs. Adventures will be traditional dungeons plus a lot of shipboard adventures and city adventures.
Character Classes Allowed: Most classes will work except any that requires a good alignment. Fighters and thieves best.
Alignments Allowed: No good alignments allowed, but characters do not have to be evil.
Races Allowed: Any race is allowed, but humans will work the best.
4. Defenders of the Righteous: Characters work for a local lord on a land bordering the Witch-Kingdom. The Witch-Kingdom is an evil land where humanoid hordes work for mysterious overlords. They are dedicated to the eradication of all that is good in the world. Conversely, the PCs’ lord is dedicated to defeating and protecting their lands from the wicked hordes. Adventures will include infiltration missions, mass combat, search and rescue, patrol, diplomacy, and dungeon and wilderness ones. The PCs can expect assistance from the lord, but must be faithful to the cause. A portion of monies and magic the players find will go back into helping the lord fight off the hordes.
Character Classes Allowed: Monks and assassins will not work.
Alignments Allowed: All characters must be good alignment; it will work better if PCs are the same alignment as their lord.
Races Allowed: Most any race will work, preferably if all PCs are the same race.
5. Noble Ruffians: The characters begin a large city in Ilmyria as part of a noble family. The noble families control various businesses in the city that have made them fabulously wealthy. However, competition is fierce with rival families as each one tries to out maneuver the other for control of their market. This often explodes into full-scale street battles and backroom deals with political figures. Adventures revolve around the rivalries of the noble families. Retaining family honor is of utmost importance, and all families have a code of ethics when battling each other. Character autonomy depends on alignment of the family; more freedom with a predominately chaotic family, less so with a lawful. Regardless of family alignment characters will have to follow instructions from family elders. Disobeying orders have consequences. Monies will have to be turned over to the family, but characters can expect assistance (more if they are lawful in alignment, less if they are chaotic).
Character Classes Allowed: Monks, cavaliers, paladins, and rangers will not work. Thieves will excel here.
Alignments Allowed: Any alignment will work, good the least.
Races Allowed: Humans work best; could work for a halfling or half-elf; other races to a lesser degree.
The following is an example of many of the elements I elaborated on above. These are part of the starting notes for a campaign I ran a few years ago.
WARRIORS OF VALHALLA CAMPAIGN
Campaign Overview: This setting takes place high in the icy fjords and snow-covered mountains of the far North Country. The party will be a group of Northmen that works for a local chieftain. In the summers, the party will be able to join ship-borne bands to raid the southern lands. Types of adventures will include standard dungeons, a few town-centered adventures, some seaborne, and some mass combat. Winters are spent locked in frozen towns in the north. At some point the players learn that their chieftain is in danger from an ancient curse. The sole deity pantheon available is Norse.
Filial Assistance: Working for a local chieftain, the party will receive a bonus after each adventure to use on the next adventure. These will be in the form of a set amount to money for equipment or hirelings, and/or some for minor magic items owned by their lord. The full amount must be used for that adventure and cannot be kept. One-shot items need not be returned, but all other magic is only on loan. Bonuses come in the form of an amount of gold pieces per average party level. Character will also be given a rune-casting by a priest prior to each adventure to determine their fate. This could result in additional luck or woe.
Character Classes Allowed: This campaign will be excellent for fighters, berserkers, bards (skalds), clerics, and runecasters. Paladins, cavaliers, and monks will not be used. Magic-users play a lesser role, and will suffer penalties to their Encounter Reaction adjustment with the local population. Thieves will be very rare, and somewhat limited in some of their normal skills.
Alignments Allowed: There are no alignment restrictions, but chaotic ones work the best.
Races Allowed: Dwarves and elves are will generally be liked by the commoners. Gnomes and halflings are rare, but can be played. Half-orcs have a poor reputation and will receive a large penalty to their Encounter Reaction adjustment with the local population.
Below is an example of a character background I devised for a player character. Players are free to collaborate on character background with the DM, but the DM should have the ultimate word on what is allowable. If a player creates their own background, the DM should always vet it first before allowing it.
Character Name: Trespo, half-elf fighter/cleric
Trespo was born in the town of Crentz in eastern Hardenburg, Niehmoria. A good-sized town of merchants (pop. 2,200), Trespo’s father was Baron Drenhald, a land-owning noble, who lived in a large estate near the town. Trespo sprung from a tryst the baron had with an elven woman from Vællioth Forest whilst visiting there in his younger years. After he was born, the infant Trespo appeared on Drenhald’s doorstep with a note attached. Trespo’s father never divulged the name of the woman.
Trespso has two younger human brothers, both of whom died at a young age, leaving Trespo the only heir to his father’s estate. Drenhald accepted him as his heir in later even though Trespo was a bastard. Trespo lived with his father for many years on his estate. His father trained him in the ways for fighting, for he had hoped that Trespo would become a knight in his service. Trespo refused to become a knight, however, telling his father that he did not like their strict rules and pretentious pomp. His father told him to leave his estate when Trespo was twenty-eight and disinherited him. Trespo took up residence in the city of Crentz where he was taken in by the brothers of the Abbey of the Splendid Sun. Here he worked as a servant for the brothers — cleaning, sweeping, and cooking — for two years until the brothers noticed Trespo’s potential and convinced him that he would man an excellent holy man. Trespo then underwent training to become a cleric.
Drenhald was an old man by the time war raised its ugly again in Hardenburg. Like most nobles in this area, he sided with the rebels against Prince Alben. Six months into the conflict, Drenhald’s estate was raided and burned to the ground. He languished in a dungeon in the city of Graffinden where he perished from a fever a few months later.
Trespo and his fellow brothers at the abbey were pressed into service for the local barons as healers for their troops. On Trespo’s first outing, the patrol he was stationed with was attacked by enemy forces on a lonely road thirty miles from Crentz. During the fight, Trespo’s was knocked unconscious. When he awoke, the rest of the patrol was slain (except for one knight, presumably captured) with all their arms and gear taken. The enemy forces, who must have thought Trespo dead, left him. Trespo then learned that Crentz was surrounded by the enemy and could not return lest he be slain or captured. Therefore, Trespo gathered what supplies he could and fled east to safer lands.
People You Know:
Brother Ylinor, mid-level priest of the Abbey of the Splendid Sun in Crentz.
Jenculd, Drenhald’s loyal manservant that helped raise Trespo. Last known to be in Crentz.
Gesttin, human fighter, childhood friend turned adventurer.
Allisa von Warring, cousin, a knight that went to fight with the rebel forces. She was in rebel held lands south of Crentz last Trespo heard.
Special Notes (Otherworldly benefactor): Trespo has a ‘guardian angel’ that watches over him. He knows that at times odd coincidences or twist of Fate have occurred that, to him, are beyond normal explanation. However, Trespo never knows precisely when his benefactor will intervene in his life.
Character Traits (likes, dislikes, mannerisms, etc.): [to be filled out by the player]
Adventuring Goals (i.e. why is your character an adventurer): [to be filled out by the player]