Saturday, August 29, 2015

Starting a New D&D Campaign - Part One

I currently have 12 "campaign drafts" sitting and collecting digital dust in my Google Drive RPG draft folder.

New campaign ideas keep popping into my head, so I jot them down in my draft folder, and every weekend or so I pick one draft and flesh it out further. I usually delete those drafts who didn't get any attention for some time (a month or two, usually), so the folder now contains around 12 half-baked campaigns, almost ready-to-play.

When starting to work on a new campaign, I usually don't have any information about the players who will be playing it, so I can only develop it up to a certain point.

I usually jot down the following:
  1. The campaign setting (I default to the Forgotten Realms these days, but some campaign ideas work better in other settings)
  2. The general plot, from a bird's eye view.
  3. How the player characters meet, why are they adventuring together, and why do they care about the plot.
  4. Any good idea I had about a special location, encounter, or NPC.
Campaign Setting

I don't really have the time to develop my own campaign settings. I have some drafts (again) or worlds I created, but running a campaign in a home-brew world requires a lot of ongoing work between sessions, and I don't have the time to invest in world building anymore. 

Published settings suites me better, especially those who get some new content published on a regular basis. I don't mind using settings that aren't officially maintained (Greyhawk comes to mind, and Eberron), but settings like the Forgotten Realms, who seem to get endless love from Wizards of the Coast works best for me, as I can loot stuff from adventures, modules, articles and books published with FR in mind. I also own the old FR grey nostalgia definitely play its role here.

Most of my campaign ideas revolve around a main theme that can be described by a single sentence - such as "Gods meddle in human affairs" or "A demon found a way to get himself free from his eternal prison", or even "An evil alien race is about to invade the planet - with a similarly evil warlord planning to stop it". Some campaign settings are more suited for some themes, but I think any D&D setting can host any theme, with some modifications. So, if my idea can work in the Forgotten Realms, I just assume the campaign will be played in the Forgotten Realms.

The General Plot

I usually start with a single sentence, something that can help me focus when the campaign is already underway. I found that most of my campaigns rarely unfold as designed, mainly due to the fact that I try to avoid railroading as much as possible. In addition, sometimes players have ideas that can take the campaign to a better direction than I envisioned - and I do my best to cooperate. So a single sentence that describe the overall story is often vague enough to allow some flexibility in the story, while providing a 'lighthouse' for me to keep the ship in the right direction.

Most of my campaigns are epic in nature, with a world changing event looming or already underway. Such campaigns can be run for many sessions, with the story slowly unfolding. Characters can go from first level to the 6th or even 8th before the main story really kicks in. It allows for character development, and some "getting sense" of the players' interests. If needs be, I modify the story in a way that stays loyal to the original plot line, but entertain the players as much as possible.

The 5th edition D&D Dungeon Master Guide has some great advice on creating campaigns - while reading the first chapter I had a sudden realization that 90% of my campaign ideas are about big events that literally shake the world. I'm sensing my next campaign will tone-down the action level and focus on smaller regions and tighter plot lines - but that's remains to be seen.

How the Characters Meet

I learned in the hard way that in order for the campaign to start on the right foot, the party must already be 'a party'. Namely, while the players might be playing for the first time, the characters must already be familiar with each other, and have a clear goal and, preferably, a patron to send them off to their first mission.

Why? Well, you want some glue to make sure the party stays together and heads in the right direction at the first session. I had groups splitting on the first session, simply because characters had different interests, or because players failed to realize that D&D is a cooperative game. I don't mind in-play debates or splits in session 18, deep inside the story, with the characters expressing different opinions in a heated argument. But I don't enjoy several strangers sitting around my table heading each in his own direction without thinking about the guys sitting next to them. I found that declaring the group as such in the beginning, and making sure they have a patron that can 'show them the right way' to adventure works best. The campaign can break later on, with the players at the reins, but the first session should be run as smoothly as possible.

Examples can be:

  • The characters are working as 'special crimes' investigators, reporting to the local temple and handling cases with suspected demonic involvement.
  • The characters are handling barely-legal deals for a shady merchant with a love for ancient arcane devices.
  • The characters are responsible for transporting dangerous prisoners from and to the local asylum, with a dwarven lord (running the prison) as their patron.

It's best to keep it simple, and make sure the patron (and the party's current "job") actually fits into the story, so the relation stays intact at least for a couple of sessions.

Sometimes, no patron / specific goal comes to mind. In this case, I just plan for the characters to be at a specific time in a specific place, with some event bonding them together, at least until the campaign hook sinks in. This method works best with groups you are already familiar with, and with players who are willing to "play along" at the first session. I still prefer the former approach.

Good Ideas

Sometimes ideas flow that don't really match your current campaign draft, or you sometimes have this really cool encounter idea, or an NPC that clicks with the story. I jot down a paragraph or two every time I have one of these ideas. You never know when those things will come handy.

Ideas run out, and inspiration might go away for a while. DM 'burn out' is a real thing, and so jotting some notes when inspiration strikes ensures your campaign will survive a 'dry season'.

I also made it a habit to invest time in reading published adventures (old or new), easily read fantasy books (anything under 300 pages) and material found in Wikipedia in subjects that can be related to D&D campaigns (such as the history of the Roman Empire, naval piracy, ancient Egyptian legends etc). Such "pools of inspiration" can really save the day. I remember running a session with NPCs build from sigmund freud's definitions of Id, Ego and Super-Ego. Inspiration can come from a lot of sources, so I invest time in exposing myself to some, and jotting down ideas so I can revisit them when in need.

(Source: tumblr)
Following the above steps - my draft campaign folder grew to 12 campaigns that just need several hours of work to make them playable.

So how to continue from here? What do you do after you have your draft campaign ready, and you even have players who are willing to participate?

More on that in Part Two of "Starting a New D&D Campaign"....

Friday, August 21, 2015

4th Edition Retrospect (with Kids!)

My 4th edition campaign ended over a year ago, and we quickly moved to D&D Next and 5th edition once it came out.

Surprisingly, my home campaign (with my kids) is still run using 4th edition rules. I thought it would be a good exercise to convert my son's current character - an Eladrin Paladin - to 5th edition, but he got bored just after generating stats, and refused to continue.

I thought long and hard about it, and tried to understand what did I do wrong. After all, he loves reading his 4th edition player's handbook over and over, so why didn't he enjoy creating a 5th edition PC?

I realized that 5th edition took away the single element he liked best in the game - "Powers".

In 4th edition, many skills, attacks, spells and special abilities are formulated into At-will, Encounter or Daily "Powers" the player can activate.

For a kid used to playing games on computers, tablets and consoles, 4th makes a lot of sense. You have a character, it has powers you can activate, go have fun adventuring in the Forgotten Realms.

Generating a character is fast, revolves around selecting those powers, and at the end of the process you have a rather powerful character - lots of hit-points, self-healing abilities and at-will powers means you can have fun with even that single character adventuring.

In 5th edition, the situation is a little different. Yes, there are a lot of choices to be made, but the 'interesting stuff' only happens around level 3, and level 1 PCs are weak in comparison to 4th edition characters. The layout of the 5th edition book makes it hard to understand at first glance what the PC can do - and that was very important to my young players.

So we kept using 4th edition at home.

Things got more interesting when I allowed my son to run a game for us (with my daughter and myself as players). Here, 4th edition really shined. All he had to do is come up with a simple story (he's 9yo, so the stories were largely influenced by the recent TV show he'd watched, or the recent movie - which was cool). Once he had the story, 'designing' encounters was easy - pick XP budget, select monsters, go!. Hard to make a mistake here.

In a sense, 4th edition technicalities makes it a very easy and fun system to run, as long as the scenarios are kept simple. Too many players fighting too many monsters with too many abilities makes the game hard to track - but with a DM and two players running 1st level characters, we had the famous RPG "sweet spot" right there and then.

But what about role-playing and out-of-combat scenarios? Well, here 4th edition skill system shined. The simplified skill system made it easy to complement dice roles with "acting out" and pretending to be the characters speaking to the King or the Evil Wizard.

The main take-away is that 4th edition is very structured, and its presentation makes that structure obvious and easy to grasp, which is a bless when playing with kids who are mature enough to bite into a role-playing system, but still small enough to need easy to understand rules and easy to press "buttons" to play the game.

It's interesting to note that my own introduction to D&D was with the Basic Set (the red box), which was a very simple system combined with a presentation that was meant to inspire. When reading the player's booklet as a kid back then in the 80', I felt so excited to see game that presented a system that 'sorted out' all that buzzing imaginative energy I had as a kid and laid it out neatly so me and my friends could share wonderful moments of role-playing in a fantasy-world. I didn't look for 'what my character can do'. I knew it could do anything I wanted, the system was there to make some sense of a fantasy character wondering around in a fantasy setting.

Now it seems a 10 years old kid is already so familiar with gamification terms such as 'level', 'power', and with the slew of fantasy movies (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, the Hobbit and their likes) that a role-playing system trying to focus on imagination fails to hit the mark, but a system focused on 'levels' and 'powers' and that 'trick Legolas does when shooting 4 arrows in one pull of the bow' connects easily.

In a sense, 5th edition is the closest to the spirit of my old Red Box D&D, while having the technical aspects of a modern RPG system. It will be interesting to see if the young generation of role-players will find 5th edition digestible - they'll probably need help from old D&D veterans like me to show them the way. At least the setting stays the same - my kids were always adventuring in and around Neverwinter. But more on that in a later post....