As a devourer (i know that’s not a word) of Epic, Heroic, Dark, Science, and Horror fantasy one of the best things about almost every story is the beginning. Whether it’s Rumo being swept away on the floating rock island populated by the terror craving Demonicles, Drizzt’s rearing in Menzoberranzan under the dark eyes of the Lolth’s wicked clerical matriarchy, or even just Bilbo dicking off in the Shire, good morning-ing all willy-nilly to Gandalf as if he was some useless vagabond peddling lord knows what; there’s something about a rich, thick, creamy fantasy intro that is just as refreshing as a cup of a coffee and a hot shower on a lazy Sunday morning. It’s a contract between the writer and the reader that essentially says “Hey, here’s fantasy. Enjoy this bit because in a chapter or two some wild crap is about to go down.” When approaching table top roleplaying games, I tend to like having the first session reserved for that “here’s how you met, exposition, chapter one, exposition, wild crap is about to go down” section already planned out and usually slathered over the group character building portion; but when i started this campaign I didn’t have any of that. No adventure hooks, no treasure bait, hell I didn’t even have a fishing pole of marvelous make. I was stranded on an uncharted sea in a rubber dingy under unfamiliar stars. The feeling was like… Well, allow me to soliloquy-the-crap-out-of-it in the paragraph below.
Pardoning the expression, but starting a campaign is almost as tricky as going in for the first kiss: everything has to be just right. The setting, the mood, the lovers (players, please don’t squirm while I finish this analogical soliloquy). Each person is writhing with anticipation, just waiting for any subtle sign from the other to know when that “it’s now or never” moment is just at hand. I know that’s a bit overly romantic, but starting off a campaign really comes with the same ups and downs of any relationship. You establish interests, goals, and set up expectations; but there is always that moment where the “things that could” become the things “that will never,” and that sometimes happens before it even starts. What if you go in for the kiss and the person turns their head, or coughs, or vomits? What if your mouth is too dry, or you faint, or you forgot to brush your teeth? Or, to bring it all around, what if you start explaining how the players’ characters met one another and they are completely disinterested with the concept all together and they hate you forever for ruining a perfectly fine Saturday afternoon? On January 16th, 2016, my gaming group and I started playing Dungeons and Dragons 5e, and for the first time since making the jump from PC to DM, I was just as nervous as I was the first time I kissed a girl; but let me tell you that I didn’t have any reason to be.
Now with that soliloquy (I love that word) out of the way: When my DnD group decided to jump back into the fantasy realm, the task as a DM seemed almost insurmountably daunting, as if the gears of creation were grinding to a halt as they slowly squished me between their rusty cogs of anxiety and self-doubt. Not only did I have to set up an entire campaign world and know every nook and cranny of that world (or at least have a vague idea in the ever-so-often event that the players decided that whatever quest I had already placed in front of them wasn’t their cup of ale at that time), but I also had to learn an entirely new gaming engine, and its terminology, from the ground up (there’s only so much you can gleam about the rules from watching Chris Perkins parade around his team of four stooges at PAX, as entertaining as they may be). Not to mention that, while slow but steady, I have been busying myself with working on a horror novel. My mind was million miles away from even the slightest concepts of elves and wizards and dragons and traps and dungeons, and (while just as hot as any first kiss) the juxtaposition between switching creative genres was first-kiss, ram-rod hard. I won’t lie, I was nervous, scared even. I had literal nightmares about it. But, to quote Frank Herbert, “I must not fear. Fear is the mind killer,” – and not because I’m a Mahdi, but because I have two things going for me: A Module and Experience.
In the Module that comes with the Dungeons and Dragons fifth edition Starter Set, the story practically opens with “Meet Me In Phandalin,” a quick two paragraph section on page 4 of the Lost Mine of Phandelver booklet that has a simple adventure hook to give a reason for the players’ characters to be grouped together. To sum it, “You know Gundred Rockseeker, he’s offering you money to deliver some goods for him.” There’s also a nice little pep-talk for any would-be DM about how to encourage the players to add their input (on page 6). So there was my hook, that shook some of the heebie-jeebies off; now it comes to my experience. Through my years as a DM (as well as a player), I have found that introductions actually aren’t THAT big of a deal if the DM presents the campaign world properly. In my Abyss campaign the players were wrongly accused of aiding a devil in capturing a princess, and then thrown into the Abyss to bring her back safely (which was
borrowed outright stolen from the game Ultima Underworld, which is a corner stone of dungeon crawl gameplay if you have never played it). The players are in Abyss and have to save a princess, got it! Hook and setting all nicely rolled up into one. In the 4e campaign Altara, the players were hired by a guild to loot the surrounding ruins, the whole while encountering the rising Cult of Dagon. The players wanted loot and Dagon spelled doom for them all, check! Whatever, whenever, however you choose to start your campaign the players will adapt because the players want to… wait for it… Play! But to caveat that point with the scholarly shroud of experience (+3 Magical item), this isn’t to say that you should plan nothing at all or, conversely, take all creative freedom away from the players. Remember, their characters are heroes who lead full lives before venturing off to the wild yonder to seek fame and fortune. The backstory of your campaign should be flexible, loose, only mapping out current events and situations that are pertinent at that given time. I only advise shoehorning in entire backstories and histories of each character if you’re either very good at it or if the players have openly given you complete control.
There was also another thing I had going for me, which at times really does make me a feel like a Mahdi, minus the whole bloody, interplanetary jihad thing; I had my players. Knowing me as well as my players do, they understood that running The Lost Mine of Phandelver was just a taste, a mere sip of what can be done with the 5e engine. And, like good players do, they have put their trust in me about holding up my end of the table top gaming contract (if you don’t know what that is then you really need to do some serious thinking before barging in on someones campaign – which means I’ll probably write an article about it). My players know that I will deliver something that they’ll sink their teeth, and swords, into. But, like that first kiss, they know I won’t force it on them if they aren’t willing. No means no.
So to wrap up this blog entry: Hey new or busy DMs, modules are A-OK. Don’t think you have to spend weeks, months, or even years, crafting out every single detail of the world before the players have even begun rolling their stats; we aren’t the gods (we control them) and players will be willingly to play if you let them. Also, it’s alright to be scared now and again, sometimes it’s even a perfectly natural reaction to the world around you (no matter what Tumblr tries to tell you); but make sure your fear is grounded and rationalized before you start calling off the Saturday night gaming session because you had that “I showed up to the game completely unprepared, and naked” nightmare for a fourth time this week.
Check back next time where i introduce my players and their characters, until then, Let’s Kick this Pig!