The Five Goals of a D&D Campaign's First Session

It’s Thursday night. The players are gathered virtually, eagerly awaiting to begin Caught in Galen on Discord. Finally, the campaign begins. One by one, the characters arrive at the gate of a grand tower that rises above the surrounding community. A storm rages above them, the first in weeks, as they speak in the flesh for the first time. Quickly, they unite for a common cause and are blindfolded and guided up the tower, meeting a gruff but kind dwarf with a great blue mohawk. They arrive in a spacious chamber, filled with books and bubbling flasks. There, they hold a conversation with two humans, members of the great house that owns this tower and are enlightened about a foul plot to destroy the family and, perhaps, ruin the community of Vorici’s Rest forever. Each character, for their own reasons, agrees with the two humans that the plot must be eliminated as the tower rumbles and shakes. Blood red fog coils under the door and outside the window, draining blood and breath from everyone — except for the warforged Flux who flies against the wall and goes unconscious. The world goes dark. 

The fog grows deeper and the characters awaken, falling in and out of darkness. They see a small humanoid with toxic green eyes and a metallic body spliced with flesh walk into the chamber, two hulking humanoids behind him — one with a single arm. Slowly, each character fading in and out, they drag the two humans out of the room and the short creature states, of the characters, “Let the guilty rise. They will devour those unfortunate enough to still live.” He leaves and many moments later, the characters arise and are spurred to action. Undead are rampant outside their door, their benefactors are gone, and the tower is surrounded with opaque crimson fog. Individuals united as a party, they must escape the tower and live to pursue their own working together. 

They scour the chamber for goods, finding a trapped chest and documents hinting toward their benefactors commercial relations. Then a scream slices through the air and the party is rushed into battle with zombies and skeletons, eager to save the halfling dancing atop a table to avoid them. They succeed, their first victory, and forge their first ally. Ready to descend the horrific tower, the adventure truly begins…

The opening session of a D&D campaign is important. Though not as integral as a session zero, the first session of a campaign needs to accomplish a few basic goals:
  1. It needs to introduce the setting.
  2. It needs to unite the characters.
  3. It needs to kickstart the story.
  4. It needs to introduce a villain.
  5. It needs to get the characters to second level.

Other than those five key goals, it can pursue a variety of things, but those are the important ones.

Introducing the Setting

The first moments of a campaign should give everyone at the table a concrete idea of the area the campaign begins. Give the players a broad image of the land, its people, and the immediate events unfolding around their characters. Don’t spend too long on a flowery description, though. The players want to begin playing their characters as soon as possible. For example, I just started Caught in Galen and I did exactly this. In my mind, I had these three points ready to go:
  • The campaign starts in Galen, a massive metropolis currently on lockdown and shielded from the outside world by an arcane barrier.
  • The community they begin in, Vorici’s Rest, is mourning the death of a beloved and respected cleric.
  • A magically made storm rages above the city and a long, diverse line awaits the characters at the gate to Coresaw Grounds.

Have at least three fundamental points about the setting ready to go to start the session. Ideally, they’ll explore the broad setting, its people, and immediate events around the characters. It leads into their introduction, after all.

Uniting the Characters

Objectively the most important part of a campaign’s opening session is uniting the characters. Without this key step, there is no D&D campaign or adventure (unless it’s a party of one). Plot this crucial moment beforehand, deciding if they’ll meet in a tavern, the midst of a battle with goblins, or locked in the fiery prison of a furious efreeti. Ask questions about how this will go, as well. Are they going to be in charge of who interacts with who, or will there be questions leading them together? Do some of them already know each other? If so, how will that impact the rest of the group? For Caught in Galen, I had this general idea whirling around my head:

  • The three characters who know each other get into line in the storm first.
  • The other two follow at opportune times in the conversation; somehow, something illuminates them as they enter the scene.
  • Charge the players with interactions. Tell Ignis he sees Jason trudging down the road in the rain, they both see Luna come around the bend, etc.

Oftentimes, this opening section is on the rails or it’s a bit awkward. People don’t know when to talk or what to say, so the Dungeon Master needs to step in and encourage everyone to roleplay and interact. Ask loaded questions. Create connections, however minimal. Empower the players and ensure every one of them is thoroughly introduced. Once they are together, they need to unite for a common purpose, which leads into kickstarting the story.

Kickstarting the Story

Once all the characters are together, it’s time for the story to begin. The story can start in a plethora of ways: a battle with a raving lunatic, a tense conversation with a brutal lord, or a meteor slamming into the nearby forest. No matter the method, though, it needs to draw the players’ and characters’ attention. The players need to be interested and the characters need to have a reason to care about it (or the players need to create a reason their characters care about it). Thus, draw inspiration from other sources besides yourself. What do your players enjoy? What would interest their characters? How could you connect the characters together? With Caught in Galen, this is how I kickstarted the story:

  • The characters all met with members of the esteemed House Coresaw beforehand and were asked to come to Coresaw’s Tower for a secret meeting.
  • Together, the characters were blindfolded and led up the tower.
  • Somewhere high up, they met with two members of the family about the vile plot of the “corrupt” temple in the community. They wanted the characters to help.
  • The tower was attacked, everyone went unconscious, the Coresaws were kidnapped, and undead now shambled throughout the tower.

In one way or another, each part of this opening related to the characters. Ignis despised the new high priest of the temple. Roy wanted to replace the temple’s primary deity with his own. Flux believed the temple may have been involved with the taker of his mentor and friend. Luna needed protection from powerful enemies and House Coresaw could help. Jason sought a precious metal mined and sold by House Coresaw. Each of the characters starting stories wove together in some way, something I did have a hand in as the Dungeon Master. It’s worth it. They are all invested in the first adventure of this campaign because they’re all connected to it. That’s the best reaction when kickstarting the story.

Introducing a Villain

Hand in hand with kickstarting the story is introducing a villain. It does not need to be the villain of the campaign, it simply needs to be someone or something the players and their characters can latch onto and seek to destroy or thwart. A haughty goblin prince, a pixie with a fiery dagger, a dretch with some semblance of intelligence paired with ferocity, any of them will do. When a campaign starts, their needs to be a solid face the characters can pursue. Hint toward a greater threat and incorporate shadowy villains in the future. In the beginning, let it be simple. In Caught in Galen, I introduced a villain the players already met in the campaign’s prologue (with different characters). Regardless, I had this in mind:

  • The villain might have to do with the disaster that strikes Coresaw’s Tower.
  • The villain steals away Andhere and Esegar Coresaw as the party lays unconscious.
  • The villain dismisses the party as insignificant fodder who will fall easily to mindless undead.

To introduce this villain, Varmin, I did take away player agency. As the disaster struck Coresaw’s Tower, filling it with foul necrotic fog and shaking its foundations, their character fell unconscious without saving throws. Usually, I’m firmly against this. However, in the first session of a campaign, when kickstarting the story and introducing an initial villain, I think it’s okay. I asked my players afterward, and each of them were perfectly okay with the entire sequence. In fact, they enjoyed how helpless they felt, and they hate the villain — Varmin — even more because of it. I’ll take it as a win, knowing I almost never take away my players’ agency.

The All Important Second Level

At the end of the first session, almost always reward the players with second level. Level one is dangerous, and players don’t have a lot of options for their characters during it. Second level opens up many more and, usually, doubles their hit points. Include a battle or two in session one, then award them with a level at the end of it. Discount this if the campaign does not begin at level one.

In Summary

The first session of a D&D campaign needs to accomplish five things:

  1. It needs to introduce the setting.
  2. It needs to unite the characters.
  3. It needs to kickstart the story.
  4. It needs to introduce a villain.
  5. It needs to get the characters to second level.

Following these steps should ensure the opening session of a campaign goes well. Let me know in the comments below if it works for you and what might improve the process.

Until next time, stay creative!

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  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Great read on creating goals and the process of achieving them RJ, way to keep the creative juices flowing very enjoyable!

    2. Thank you! I am glad it was a good read.

    3. If anyone would like to build on these goals, please do so in the comments below!

    4. I dislike having to get the players together in the party at the beginning of every campaign. I mean everyone is getting together to play together, why every time do the cats need to be herded? I believe that the characters should already be united at the beginning of the campaign, with the option of 5-6 lone PCs needing to be grouped up the rare exception.

    5. That definitely works and I've done it in the past. Giving each character an interesting connection to another is also a great way to go.