The Dead Isles of Altarin

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My first “campaign” was over. The Savage Front campaign, in my eyes, had been a failure caused by me, the Dungeon Master. Under ten sessions long, one total party kill, and a few failed plots was enough for me to end the story and start a new campaign. Did I quit? Yes. Looking back, I could have handled it much better and saved the Savage Front without beginning something new. Alas, that’s not what happened; instead, me and my friends began a new campaign called the Dead Isles of Altarin. This time, I decided against doing mountains of preparation beforehand and instead started with a simple idea: an archipelago ruled over by a trio of three liches called the Dread Admirals. Under them, common folk lived and thrived but a revolution was slowly brewing against the undead. As the party entered the world, they’d have to take a side and decide the fate of the Dead Isles of Altarin. This campaign, I was going to prepare little, improvise a lot, and go with the flow of the story. Well, how…

Starting a Story


Every Dungeons and Dragons adventure or campaign has a beginning.

Once the characters are created, the world’s established, and everyone has their drinks beside them, ‘tis time to begin. The table is strangely silent and everyone looks expectantly to the dungeon master. The onus is on them to kick off the adventure.

With the tremendous amount of new players and dungeon masters entering the hobby, this begs the question: How does the dungeon master begin the premiere session of a new story correctly?

Today, I’ll be discussing how to do exactly this, and how the onus is not entirely on the dungeon master but split between them and the players. Of course, my method of starting a campaign off right might not be the perfect strategy, but it’s worked well for me thus far!

The Opening Scene 

The absolute beginning of a new story should start with an enrapturing scene. The goal here is to catch the attention of the group, immerse them into the world, and give them enough to build a personal moment with.

There is a myriad of ways to start a D&D game: In the confines of a well-lit and raucous tavern, aboard an air or sea vessel voyaging toward an explorable destination, chained up against a musty dungeon wall, or rolling down a mountainside in a partially-demolished and completely unlead wagon. All of them are fantastic ways to begin, although some may require more planning to make unique and interesting.

Beginning in a neutral location, somewhere scenic, calm, and rife with possible situations, is ideal, although the chaotic location described above will work. Starting somewhere serene will give the player characters a place to initially flesh out their personalities, appearance, and relationships to one another, while opening up the game during a crazy encounter leads to making an exciting action scene. 

In truth, it depends on the dungeon master’s group and what they’re interested in. Do what sounds fun and evocative!

Dramatis Personae

Now that the stage is set, it’s time to toss the narrative to the players. During this period, the dungeon master should only act as a catalyst to get each player to speak about their character. This is essential. The story will, if woven correctly, be about the player characters. By the end of this section, everyone should have a basic idea of the core cast. Bounce from player to player, asking them to describe their character’s appearance, demeanor, and what they’re doing at this very moment. If possible, the dungeon master should incorporate something about the previous PC while moving to the next.

For example:

Player 1: I’m Tinix, an orange-furred and calm tabaxi. Right now, I’m smoking a bone pipe with my clawed feet kicked up on a nearby crate.

Dungeon Master: As Tinix smokes her pipe, its smoke wafts into the nostrils of your character, Player 2.

Player 2: Kybur, a black-brown scaled, fierce dragonborn inhales deeply as the smoke enters his being, and turns to Tinix…”Where’d you get that strand?”

Again, ensure everyone is able to make an impression and introduce their character. Once that’s done, the time has come for conflict.

A Conflict Comes

After everyone has had the chance to interact, the dungeon master must toss a conflict into the mix. This forces the players to think together strategically for the first time, and allows everyone to play their characters in a hostile (combat or roleplay) encounter. With this encounter, try not to drive a wedge between the PCs. Instead, present a situation where they’d all likely team up for a common goal. This avoids complications in the very first encounter of a campaign.

Sample encounters are goblin attacks, thug muggings, wolf pack assault, bargaining their way into a prestigious tavern, or sneaking through the trap-filled sewers. Keep the first situation simple but interesting.

In Summary

The beginning of a story is important. It’s how you grab everyone’s attention and when the player characters are introduced. Ensuring both of those tasks are accomplished is vital to a successful start to a campaign or adventure. Remember:
  1. Begin with an interesting and evocative scene.
  2. Ensure all the player characters are introduced.
  3. Throw in a conflict to establish everyone’s role/demeanor in combat or roleplay encounters.
That’s all for today, folks. I have finals coming up so the articles may be a tad shorter than usual. Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy them!

Until next time, farewell!

Check out more of my content on the rest of rjd20.com! Follow me on Twitter, like my Facebook page, or join my subreddit for notifications about my weekly articles. Be sure to leave comments and critiques; I always welcome constructive compliments and criticism!

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