Luke has a bachelor's degree in art and humanities. He loves video games and tabletop RPGs.
How Many Taverns Can There Be?
Roleplaying games are an investment. They take time to prepare, including finding out everyone's schedule, buying materials, and organizing who is bringing the pretzels. Being a new Dungeon Master can feel like a very daunting task at first, and finding any help can really get the creative juices flowing for the DM and the players. Here are four ways to begin your campaign that don't begin in a tavern or prison.
1. Royal Assassination
The party has been invited to the city of Folkstone's Annual Summer Solstice Celebration, and the king, a personal friend of the mayor, is in attendance. Right before the feast begins, the king stands up and makes a speech. He thanks the mayor and the people for the warm welcome. Mid-sentence, he is struck by an arrow in the heart/throat/head and falls down dead. The townsfolk scream, and you hear someone yell, "They've gone that way!" What do you do?
This scenario can open up a plethora of different story opportunities. Is the king popular or a tyrant? Is the assassin from a secret guild, or were they hired by the king's jealous brother? How will the party handle the situation if they catch the killer? What if the party is accused of being involved? This opening scene can set the tone of the entire campaign.
2. Underworld Heist
After being contacted by a mysterious and otherworldly bounty hunter, the party is tasked with sneaking into Hell to recover something of great importance or value. This prompt can open up many different ways this adventure can take.
- How is the party getting into the underworld?
- What are they trying to reclaim? A magical item? The soul of a family member or historical figure? Or is it information from someone who died before the truth came out?
- Is it full of demons or ghosts? Does everyone go to the underworld, or is there a heaven in this world?
I recently ran this campaign with my players. The bounty hunter discovered something that each of them desired and used that to enlist their help. The Fighter's mentor was in hell, and they wanted to free him. The Wizard's favorite teacher was murdered and did not deserve to be in hell. The Druid wanted a magical relic that was recently discovered in the underworld so that he could restore balance in his homeland.
3. Fungal Forest
The town of High Haven has a mushroom problem—an invasive species of fungus has infected the nearby woods and spreads like wildfire. The party has been hired by the local clergy to clear out the woods and find the cause of the infestation. At the end of the briefing, any number of things can happen.
- One of the monks or priests can wander in, infected with the wildfire fungus and is now a mindless zombie with mushrooms growing out of their heads. I have an image of mushrooms that grow out of their eye sockets, popping the victims' eyes out in the process.
- While gathering supplies, a group of infected woodsman or hunters can shamble into town, trying to spread the fungus further.
- An anthropomorphic mushroom can be seen in an alley. They've been sent by the Fungus Deity to spy on the town.
With this kind of story, the DM can also instill a sense of urgency. If the party doesn't react in a way that halts the fungal invasion, the town can be potentially lost, and the consequences of that neglect can affect the whole world.
4. Regime Change
The traditionally fun town of Silver River has had a drastic change in leadership. The hands-off, carefree leadership of the council has been removed, and a governor has been put in charge. The town was also very open and tolerant of magic-users, and after the regime change, they were no longer welcome. This can cause tension for any magic users in the party, possibly giving them a reason to hold back on their skills. Other possible opportunities can be the following:
- Who is the governor, and how did they come into power?
- Why do they hate magic?
- What happens if someone is caught using magic?
- Where is the original council?
Use your players to fill in the gaps of the story. They can provide inspiration without even knowing it. When I ran this campaign, I had the governor secretly kidnap the magic users and use them to open a portal to another universe. It turns out the new regime were literal Nazis that were trying to find magical items to use to turn the tides of a losing war.
In order to close the portal, the Druid had to cross over into Nazi Germany and destroy the machines while the Fighter went on a Nazi smash-fest. The pressure to close the portal and not get stuck in another universe was also fun to see played out, and I was genuinely curious about what my players would choose to do.
Some of the best advice I have ever received was to never stop asking questions. These can range from "how common is magic in the world?" to "how bountiful is food or precious metals in this region?" After you, the DM, or the player makes a move, ask the group or yourself, "what do you do?"
A common cliché is "if you fail to plan, then plan to fail." When playing RPGs with a group of people, this is not always the case. Your players can focus on the most random of things and inadvertently derail your entire plan for the story. In the game Dungeon World, written by Adam Koebel and Sage LaTorra, there's a credo pertaining to this. The game master is to "draw maps but leave spaces." Give yourself some wiggle room.
Planning too much can give your players a sense that you're trying to control the story, commonly referred to as railroading. By over-planning, you are removing player choice from the realm of possibilities. A successful campaign is not a novel with a beginning, middle, and end. Depending on character choice and the will of the dice, anything can and will happen. And that's where you find the fun and the reason why we play Dungeons and Dragons.