Your D&D Campaign's Starting Point
The point where you start your campaign can say a lot about what it will become: a run-down town on the edge of a rocky wasteland crawling with bulette-taming goblins; a tropical archipelago controlled by a trio of powerful lich-lords; a settlement in the frozen north overrun by vile lycanthropic creatures; a hub of trade and commerce in an otherwise desolate desert; a port recently annexed by a dragon empire. Those were all the locations I chose to begin my various Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. It’s time we built a new one, together.
Thus far in the Worldforge series, we’ve established a set of tenets for our world, designed a pantheon, created a setting map, and fleshed out a few of our world’s major powers. Those were all broad strokes meant to give you an idea of how your world will work. Now, we’re going to zoom in on a small piece of our setting: where our next adventure or campaign will begin. Once we’ve completed this step, we can begin our actual campaigns!
After this article and the next, the Worldforge will begin focusing on other aspects of worldbuilding, from how to create a compelling ruler and the role rivers can play in adventures to the finer uses of magic in our worlds. Okay, Dungeon Masters, let’s mold our campaign’s starting point.
Where to Begin?The first step here is to think about where your campaign will begin. What climate? What landscape? It might be a good idea to hold a session zero at this point, which I delve into in this article. Which environment you choose might depend on what you and your players want to do. Trust me, this decision can impact your campaign for months and even years to come. Take the time to think about it.
If your group is searching for a swashbuckling adventure filled with sea monsters and boardwalk sword fights, you might want to start in a tropical archipelago or a coastal area. If everyone seeks elements of survival and desperation, beginning in a scorching desert might be the right place. Lots of campaigns kickoff in generic fantasy landscapes: green fields and forest surrounded by rolling hills. As long as you and your players are cool with that, starting there (especially if this is your first campaign) might be simplest. Your players can always roam to the haunted swamp or the frigid tundra rife with yetis and orcs.
After that, it’s time to pick the actual starting location. Most adventures begin in a small town or village; some start in a city. A select few kickoff in the depths of a dense forest or the clutches of a deadly dungeon. As you can probably tell from this article’s introduction, I almost always start campaigns in a settlement. This is because doing this doesn’t throw players into the midst of an ongoing plot. When I run a campaign, I want the players to gravitate to stories, NPCs, and places that they think are interesting. Starting in a neutral location like a village allows this to happen.
Of course, the starting location also depends on the level of the party. Novice rogues, sorcerers, and barbarians (levels 1-4) usually begin in villages, small towns, or the wilds near them. Experienced adventurers (levels 5-10) can start in cities or places of wonder. Powerful parties (levels 11-16) most likely start adventures in the capitals of countries or even the various planes of existence. God-tier adventurers (levels 17-20) almost certainly begin in the most important locations in the world or the planes of existence.
Once you’ve decided where your campaign will begin, it’s time to add a pinch of spice to it.
Think creatively. There are plenty of interesting elements you can add to the background of your starting location to give it that extra spice: a war, a revolution, a new leader, or the influence of a powerful organization. Perhaps an ancient prophecy is finally occurring that affects the location the characters start in. A good example of this is the red comet in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. A comet appears in the sky and signals different things to different people, kicking a plethora of different events into motion.
Let’s look at a good D&D example. Say your campaign’s background conflict is a war between a fiercely theocratic human nation and multiple wood elf tribes of the huge forest nearby. The human’s claim a lost relic of their patron deity is buried deep in the woods, but the elves refuse to let the humans desecrate their woodland realm. In addition to the main plot or the quests the characters gravitate toward, you can provide them with opportunities to help or hinder either side. Let them witness the affects the war is having on the nation and the forest. It doesn’t need to take the forefront, taking precedence over the plot to stop the drow of the world below from summoning an Aspect of Lolth, but perhaps the drow are using this war to their advantage.
The fifth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide has a fantastic section on “World-Shaking Events” that provides lots of inspiration for background conflicts. Check it out!
With a background conflict set, it’s time to put the finishing touches on your campaign’s starting point.
Character TiesWhy are the characters beginning here? Why do the characters care about this place? Who do they know? All of these questions need to thought about before the campaign begins. One of the keys to a successful campaign is ensuring your characters feel connected to the world. I delved into how a player can do this in last week’s article, but it’s not only their job. You need to make an effort to make sure your players’ characters are a part of your setting. They need to understand where they’re starting and how it’s incorporated into the wider world.
But before that, I’ve found that players love making a few NPCs, locations, and stories around the starting point of the campaign. Let them, as long as it fits in the overall feel of the setting. Perhaps their character has a feud with the hill half-giant butcher who’s employed solely because of his strength and want to not waste any part of the animals he cuts. Maybe they’ve heard rumours about a mysterious manor sinking into the bullywug-filled marsh to the west. While you are the Dungeon Master, you should give your players opportunities to make some of the world too; it helps get them invested.
Afterward, talk to them about why they are there and why they care about this place. If you’re starting in a small village with an orc problem, maybe someone they care about lives in the village. Perhaps they have beef with the attacking orcs. The key here is to ensure they have a reason to be there. An adventurer without a purpose is boring and bland. They should have motivations, however minute they may be. In the next Worldforge article, this is what we’ll be exploring: how to create a compelling 1-2 page handout for your players. Its pages will be filled with inspiration meant to inspire your players, to give them ideas about why they’re where the adventure begins if they can’t create one on their own.
In SummaryAll D&D campaigns have a starting point. Where will yours be in your fantastical setting? Remember the following points:
- Think about where in your setting your campaign will begin. Who rules? What’s the environment? Consider what you and your players want to play during this step (swashbuckling action, high adventure, gritty survival, et cetera); it will influence where you begin.
- Create the background conflict for your campaign, a multi-layered event that may or may not influence various aspects of the characters’ adventurers. A war, a discovery, an ancient omen coming true are a few examples.
- Try to tie the characters to the starting point. Answer why they are there, who they know, and why do they care about it? It’ll help invest both the characters and the players in the campaign.
Next week, I believe we’ll be talking about worldbuilding again, but it’s going to be more meta. I’ve had a revelation on the topic and I’d like it to discuss it with you all — I think. No promises.
Until next time, farewell my friends!