Loose Plot Threads in D&D

What awaits within the forgotten planar prison? Where is Bahamut, draconic deity of law and justice? Did the tiefling templar survive the deadly inquisition? How many years have passed since the party traveled to the Plane of Faerie? Why does the benevolent patron seek freedom from his gnomish bindings? These are all plot threads that should be tracked and solved by the end of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

Pay attention to the key word there: should. 

It’s understandable that not everything plot or story that comes to light during the campaign will be solved by its conclusion. Some of these threads can be left for future campaigns or adventures in the world. Others will comprise the epic ending of the campaign, bringing joy to the players and their characters. This is even more important when players deeply enjoy mysteries in the campaign. These players should be rewarded at the campaign’s end, the mysteries should have substance, meaning, and an effect on the world around them.

If keeping track of mysteries or loose plot threads is difficult, try to keep a running list of them. After every session, add new mysteries or unanswered questions of note to a document or spreadsheet, associated with their answers or supposed answers. As they are solved, mark them off. As new elements are added to them, evolve the plot threads and try to tie them into the end of the campaign or a certain arc. 

Solve the ones the players think are important or the ones they want to solve and leave the less interesting threads for a future campaign. With time, they will become savory and even more mysterious.

Until next time, stay creative!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

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How to Begin a D&D Campaign

By RJ on 17 April 2020

The world is created, the characters are made, and the starting location is set, but how do you begin a Dungeons & Dragons campaign? There are many lines to check off on your list. Is the starting point created? Are all the session zeros finished? Is the initial plot formulated? Is the opening scene ready to go? 

As I prepare for the start of my next D&D campaign, Caught in Galen, I’m going to help you or anyone else out there itching to begin a campaign correctly complete their pre-campaign checklist.

The D&D Campaign’s Starting Point

Where will the campaign begin? This is a key question you should know before your players begin to make their characters that I dedicated an entire article to awhile back. Will the party explore the titanic ruins of a dragon empire on a jungle continent? Will they delve into the depths of the Subterrane in chase of a rogue celestial? Will they begin caught in a giant city of an inherently magical population? 

Know this before anything else. You can decide it yourself, or you can pitch a few campaign ideas to your fellow players. Sometimes giving them the opportunity to help create the adventure they’ll be playing in can be exciting and cause them to become invested far more in the setting and story. For Caught in Galen, I pitched seven campaign ideas in this document. Everyone voted and the winner was clear. 

Now, we will not be just playing the campaign I wanted, but the campaign the majority of the players rooted for.

After the setting is decided, it’s time to get to work. I recommend writing out at least a page on your world, detailing its fundamental ideas and concepts, in addition to two or three pages about the snapshot of that world: the campaign’s starting point. This region guide will help players build their character concepts and connect them to the world, giving them inspiration for interesting individuals. 

In the guide I wrote for Caught in Galen, I included everything I thought was important for starting the campaign and building the characters. The opening three paragraphs detail the snapshot setting, the city of Galen, the most important current event, and what the characters might be thinking right now. 

Afterward, it details what’s happened in the city in the past month with a brief timeline, then outlines twelve iconic individuals the characters might be connected to. They all relate to the background tension in some way. The guide closes with a variant the players can give their characters related to the campaign idea and a brief description of the starting region, a small community in the metropolis. 

With all of this in place, the players are ready to build their characters, and I am ready for their session zeros.

The All-Important Session Zeros

The next line on the list concerns the campaign’s session zeros. Over two years ago, I wrote an article all about holding a successful session zero. I still stand by the ideas I shared in this article, with a small additions and shake-ups. In essence, a session zero prepares you and your group for what you want in the D&D campaign. Before holding this session zero, I do a few things. 

First, I talk to each player privately about their character and help them build him or her. I ask them loaded questions, meant to spur their imagination and connect them to the world and beginning narrative. During this Q&A session, they get a chance to build the world, too. All the basic questions I asked for the Caught in Galen campaign can be found in this document.

Next, I hold individual “actual play” session zeros with each player and their character. This allows them to get a feel for their character, my DM style, and the setting itself. Once these two individual sessions are done, I get everyone together and we talk about the campaign as a whole. 

We discuss the setting again. We build a few parts of it together, an NPC or three, an enemy or two. Then, we talk about what we want and don’t want in the campaign. Is this campaign rated G or Mature? Is slavery a sour topic? Is romance okay? Can combat be described as gory and disgusting or comical and lighthearted? Establishing all of these concepts up front is important for the longevity of the campaign. If the players create parts of the world, ensure their characters are a part of it, and they know aspects of D&D they despise won’t be present, your group is sure to last. 

As you complete everything related to session zero, it’s time to begin thinking about the basic plot that will mark the campaign’s beginning.

The Basic, Initial Plot

Before the campaign begins but after all of the session zeros are over, you should have a good idea of your party’s backgrounds and desires. Use them as a skeleton for the campaign’s initial plot and opening scene. 

Find a common thread that binds all the characters together and discover a way to spur them all to action. Do they all want to protect the town from the goblin invasion for one reason or another? The town guard needs volunteers to patrol the wilds! Are they all eager to invest themselves into a prominent family? The family calls for aid in an important investigation! 

The possibilities are endless, and they’ll be different for every group.

The Integral Opening Scene

Everything is prepared. The starting point is built out, the session zeros are finished, and the initial plot is sketched out. The only part of the list left is kicking off the campaign with an integral opening scene. This is when all the characters will come together, for one reason or another, to form a party. Hopefully, this party will brave the wilds of your world, shift to other planes of existence, and venture the vast multiverse. 

The moment of their inception will likely be sung in the songs of bards whose great grandparents aren’t yet born. How should you begin their adventure? It’s your choice; it’s a heavy burden. Should the campaign begin in medias res, with the party already together, battling a group of kobolds riding giant lizards? With this approach, you can flashback as the battle ends and discover how they ended up in the combat. Or, if you want to be classical, you could start the campaign in a dimly lit tavern or in a jail cell without any gear. 

There are many options, and you need to think about which one you want to pick. Tailor it for your group, and don’t go in without thinking. This is the beginning of your epic tale; you want to make it as great as you possibly can. 

Here are a few ideas.

  1. The characters begin in a wagon, imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit.
  2. The characters begin on a ship in the middle of a storm, en route to the adventure location.
  3. The characters begin in a shady tavern, a hooded figure in the corning eyeing one of them.
  4. The characters begin all guarding the same caravan, looking out for bullywug attackers.
  5. The characters begin in the estate of a powerful family, each seeking the family’s blessings.
  6. The characters begin in the midst of battle, fighting a dire bear in a wooded area.
  7. The characters begin in the Astral Plane, unsure of where they are or why they’re there.
  8. The characters begin on an airship, hours before it crashes onto an island thanks to sabotage.

For Caught in Galen, I’m still fighting myself over which way to begin it.

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Here's to greatening your game and world: cheers!

Introducing Tales of Galen

Welcome to the premier article of Tales of Galen, a new series that will recount the next campaign in the world of Eldar: Caught in Galen. Right now, I’m in the process of preparing everyone for this campaign, going through each of the steps I’ve advocated for here on rjd20.com, in addition to a few new additions I’ll talk about in good time. As I build the starting point of Caught in Galen, speak to the players about their characters, and imagine the nonplayer characters they’ll interact with, I thought I’d share some initial thoughts on the campaign and this new series with all of you.

The Tales of Galen articles will not replace the weekly articles released every Friday at 7:00 p.m. Eastern Time; they will accompany them, being released sometime throughout the week. They’ll range from short to long, focused or meandering, but always revolve around the Caught in Galen campaign.

My plan with this campaign is to share the process, from beginning to end, with all of you. And then, once Caught in Galen has concluded, I’ll share the folder with all of the lore I wrote, sessions I prepared, and epic moments my party experienced. Everything, from the most minute plot point to the most diabolical villain, will be included in that folder. The endgame goal is to be as transparent as possible with my worldbuilding and session prep process in an attempt to help anyone out there who needs or wants help in those areas of Dungeons & Dragons.

Two of my three ongoing campaigns will be ending by the end of May. The Frozen Expanses of Iskryn, a campaign that’s lasted three years and had its fair share of peaks and valleys, concludes on April 25th. The Karlith Straits, my first real weekly campaign, reaches its conclusion on May 28. That leaves the Enoach Desert ongoing, which is a monthly campaign, and the new Caught in Galen ready to start in June.

Caught in Galen’s premise is simple. The characters begin in Galen, the City of Magic, after the metropolis was quarantined by its governing body in response to the assassination of that body’s leader. They are desperate to find the assassin and not let them escape, so they summoned a crackling sphere of arcane energy around the city, disabled all teleportation magic, and put its districts on lockdown. One week after this event, the campaign begins!

However, before it officially starts, I’ve already run a two-part prologue with the party. In addition, I am conducting session zeros with each of them individually, a Q&A portion and an actual play portion.

The two-shot went very well and set the tone for the campaign. The players created interesting, level three characters who delved into a catacomb at the behest of an arrogant cleric. In the end, it appeared they had been tricked and walked into a trap. Barely, they all perished at the hands of a half-warforged, a warforged juggernaut, and their skeleton minions. They are pissed at this creature and understand some of the dirty politics of the starting area, which is exactly what I wanted.

As for the one-on-ones, they are going well, too. The Q&A portion is simply me asking them loaded questions about their character. Why are you in Galen? Who is your patron deity? Who’s someone you’re friendly with in the starting area? What’s your one-week, short term goal? This not only helps them think about and expand their character, but helps me understand what they might want out of the campaign when we begin. Of course, lots of this will evolve over time. This won’t be a short campaign. Most likely, it will stretch beyond 60 sessions. We are in it for the long haul.

Alongside the two-part prologue and the one-on-one session zeros, I’m creating lots of nonplayer characters for the campaign. Yes, there will the central tension related to who assassinated the Archmagus, but I’m planning on focusing the campaign around the characters and their goals. If they want to become a part of that plot, great; if not, we will move in a different direction. Creating a cast of characters with simple descriptions and motivations allows me to easily mold their stories to the characters’ tales. It’s a great tactic that ensures no pre-campaign preparation will go to waste.

This week’s Friday article should dive into the details of creating a region guide for a new campaign, following what I did for Caught in Galen. We’re going to briefly preview that. 

The primer is simple and concise. It begins with a three paragraph description of the region, the overarching narrative, and what the players should be thinking about their characters. Then it gives a bit of background using a timeline, communicating how bustling and crazy the city is right now. After, it does something new, introducing a cast of twelve iconic individuals in the city, explaining that each character is connected in some way to one of them. Next, it shows how magical Galen is by allowing each character to have some sort of magical influence, either a cantrip or body augmentation. Finally, it wraps everything up by outlining the starting point of the campaign: Vorici’s Rest.

I carefully constructed this region guide. Everything is there for a reason. I’ll be diving into those reasons on Friday.

For now, that’s going to be it. Next week, we’ll explore Caught in Galen’s prologue and why I convinced my players to run a “one-shot” to preface this campaign.

Until then, stay creative!

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Avoiding Animus at the Table

Volo's Guide to Monsters | Dungeons & Dragons

After a bloody battle against a warforged sneak, his juggernaut underling, and his skeletal minions, each of the party members lies dead on the ground. In the fields of a scarred farm, a bulette-riding goblin with a massive, stone maul executes each of the living party members, goblins hollering around him. As a kobold warlock saves a fellow party member, the speeding boulder rams into him, shattering his bones and sending his soul to the Nine Hells.

All of the situations I described above are encounters that have gone wrong for at least one person in my party. Whether it was the dice not rolling their way, the odds being against them in every way, or them mistakenly taking a battle against a powerful foe, at least one of them died; their character’s soul left its mortal shell, grey mist coiled around it, and it made its journey to the Astral Plane, where it would soon enter a portal to its respective eternal resting place.

Of course, in-game this is a sad or infuriating event. If an entire party dies, something has gone wrong. The villain likely won the day and their plans are moving forward, without a bastion of heroes to halt them or protect the rest of the world. Even if a single party member dies, it’s an extremely taxing encounter, especially at low level.

Very few people come out happy after a death or a total party kill. However, that doesn’t mean there needs to be animus between the players or them and the Dungeon Master. Yes, these are the encounters where there is a chance that the players will become swept up in rage at another player’s actions...

“Why didn’t you charge past the juggernaut, going for the sniping warforged sneak?”

“Where was the healing!?!? Why was there no healing?!”

“Your dice are trash. You need new dice.”

...players might even become angry at the Dungeon Master...

“You targeted me and lost us the battle. What’s up with that?”

“I don’t think you actually rolled those two critical hits. Thanks for the TPK.”

“Is this encounter of an appropriate challenge rating for our group? I don’t think so.”

...which could create a boiling aura of blame, hatred, and fury at the table. Players yelling at players, the Dungeon Master defending their actions — it’s a mess. I never want that, and I’m sure you don’t either. We play D&D to fight dangerous beasts, to tell fantastic stories, not to play the blame game and bicker over the unfortunate demise of the characters we love.

That’s why everyone needs to understand two simple truths: no one is perfect in D&D and it’s not the DM versus the players, it’s the world versus the players. 

Artwork from Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes / WotC, via D&D ...

On the first point, no one is going to play perfectly at all times. Maybe someone forgot to use their Second Wind ability as a fighter; that’s okay, don’t tear them up over it. Perhaps someone’s dice weren’t allowing them to roll over a five today, don’t beat them up! In the end, D&D is a game and many people play to have fun, not to optimize every move of their characters. Mistakes will happen and sometimes these mistakes will lead to catastrophic failure, which includes death. Be sad for a bit, reminisce about the fallen heroes, and move on to the next leg of the adventure. Don’t linger on the past and rip apart your friends. Odds are you’re going to share many more exciting, happy, and tragic tales with them in the future.

The second truth is my favorite line to espouse to my players. Whenever something doesn’t go their way, whether it’s a lord deciding to betray them at the last moment or a few skeletons deciding to focus fire on a single target, it’s not me — the Dungeon Master — committing these vile actions, it’s the lord himself, it’s the skeletons themselves. Everyone at my table should know I try to stay as true as possible to the world and characters I’m portraying. If I think the bandit lord would surrender to the party based on their past actions and his mental state, he will; I won’t force him to fight because I want a battle to take place. As a result, everyone should know it’s not me versus the players, it’s the world versus the players. I know some games don’t enjoy this concept, preferring the thought that the DM is out to kill the players, but in my game, it’s not true. I want to see them succeed. I want their stories to grow and flourish. Sometimes that’s not what happens, though. There is inherent risk in my world and D&D, without it, what’s the point? Regardless, it’s not me they should be angry at when their characters fall to the crazily calm warforged sneak or the proud goblin chieftain. They should be furious at the villains, at the world, prepared to avenge their former characters during the life of a new one.

If everyone adheres to these two, simple truths, a lot of heartache and anger can be avoided at the table. 

Instead of these two negative emotions, everyone’s minds can be filled with intrigue in the new possibilities of the next story, the next battle, the next villain — a chance to avenge the fallen. With these new chances for the incredible, everyone’s bodies will be filled with vigor, prepared for the next wicked trap, the next hearty ally, the next leg of the adventure.

Everyone has a better time at the table when they can trust there won’t be outrage when a battle is lost or something goes wrong. Try following the two truths if you aren’t already and see what happens. I can promise you, it’ll surely be a positive experience.

Until next time, stay creative!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

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Playing D&D Online

The world as a whole is experiencing an event like no other right now. Businesses are shut down, families are huddling inside, people are severely sick, and the invisible enemy is combated by heroic folk. During times like these, it’s extremely important that we stand together against the darkness that is here and will pervade our lives for the weeks and months to come. One way to accomplish this is to continue gathering with the people we love and share common interests with, including our Dungeons & Dragons groups.

We might not be able to physically reach across the table in glee when the vile red dragon falls, or feel the tremble of the wooden table under the weight of a maximized fireball’s d6’s, but we can still create stories & battle monsters in worlds of our own design. All we must do is utilize the tools that are given to us, namely the internet. During times such as these, we can transfer our in-person groups to a virtual tabletop, a voice and/or video server, or a text channel. We can adapt and keep pursuing happiness in this time of crisis.

Virtual Tabletops

As the field of online TTRPG play has grown, more and more virtual tabletops have entered the scene. These allows us to play our games in a simulated tabletop environment. In many of them, Dungeon Masters have the ability to set up battle maps, move icons across the field of combat, and communicate with players individually. Lots have the functionality to hook up character sheets to them and even roll within the application. I’ve only used Roll20 a few times and it works well, but it definitely requires a time investment to master. Here are a list of popular virtual tabletops you can try out for your online D&D experience:
These are all reputable platforms to play D&D on. However, as I stated before, they require time to master. If you’re temporarily moving to a virtual environment, then these may not be the choices for you. Instead, there’s a clear, simple favorite: voice and/or video servers, particularly Discord.

Voice and/or Video Servers

Instead of using voice and/or video servers such as Discord and Zoom for strategizing in video games or planning our days of work, we can repurpose them to be avenues to play D&D. Discord works especially well, being an intuitive, free platform that supports uploading files, multiple D&D bots, and more. This is what I’ve been using during quarantine. For my sessions, I created a single chat channel for the group, a text channel for the group, and private text channel for me, and a public text channel only I can write in. The private text channel allows me to run commands by the bot I utilize for background music called Groovy — check it out if you want to enhance the virtual mood. In the text channel only I can use, I share information with the group. Whether it’s a handout for character creation, the map of the catacomb entrance they’re speaking beside, or a piece of art representing the undead dire bear they’re about to battle, this text channel serves Dungeon Masters well.

In combination with some sort of server, you can also utilize applications like Google Slides to great effect. If you have a battle map you want to use for more than theater of the mind, you can import it into Google Slides, place a few different colored tokens across the slide, and share your screen (something that can easily be done in Discord). Following these directions, you can simulate combat in a quick & concise manner, moving tokens from square to square and removing enemies once they’ve fallen on the battlefield.

I truly think using Discord is the best option right now. It’s simple to set up, easy to use, and reliable to everyone. Sure, there might be a few hiccups as everyone adjusts to muting their mics when they’re not speaking and forgetting their friends can’t see their facial expressions, but with time, everything will normalize.

Text Channels

Now might be the time to try something completely new by playing D&D with text interactions using channels like Discord or Facebook. I’ve tried this for brief periods of time and never enjoyed it, but I’ve heard stories of people who live and die by text-based roleplaying. The premise is simple: set up a text channel in a Discord server or Facebook group and take turns describing what each character does after the Dungeon Master sets the scene. Interactions are slower, combats take forever or take a back seat entirely, and there’s obviously never instant interaction unless everyone gathers on the channel at once to play. This style of play would serve mystery campaigns well and lends more power to avid descriptors. Try it out if you’re looking for a slower pace in these volatile times.

Stay Safe and Play Together

Just keep playing D&D, folks. Even in these difficult times, D&D serves as a medium to escape our normal lives and become extraordinary characters in an extraordinary world. It gives us a way to spend time with the people we love and make the impossible happen. Not being able to gather everyone around a physical table isn’t a barrier right now, it’s perfectly plausible to play online. Don’t shy away from it, embrace it. Soon enough, we’ll all be back to our grand oak tables or our stained plastic unfolding platforms. Until then, this is the way.

Stay creative and farewell!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com.