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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