Building A Campaign World – Part 3: Gods

This is the third post in my series on world-building. To see all of the posts in one place, click here.

As I’ve said in the past, I’m not an advocate for doing too much world-building before you actually start playing. I like to discover the world as the players do, staying one step ahead so that I don’t get caught with my pants down. Today, though, we’re talking about something that really does require a bit of advanced planning on your part.

If you have a cleric in your party – or think you’ll have a cleric in your party (and this is why it’s good to get an idea of what characters people want to play before you get them around the table) – then you’re going to have to think about religion in your world. You may well want to use the pantheons from the Player’s Handbook (Appendix B), and that’s fine – but, to me at least, it seems like if you’re going to the effort of building your own world, you should populate it with your own gods, too.

Again, though, I’m an advocate for doing as little as possible, allowing the fine details to work themselves out while you play. So let’s take a look at how I built the pantheon for the 9 Towers.

The Broad Strokes

If you’re going to create a pantheon, it’s important to create at least a little bit of mythology surrounding it. It’s very easy to simply present your players with a list of gods and domains to pick from, but at that point you might as well stick to the standard gods presented in the Player’s Handbook. The goal of everything I do when I build a world is to create something new and exciting, something the players haven’t seen before, something that feels deep, coherent, and somehow real (even though I know I’ve left a huge amount of the world intentionally blank).

The first thing to do is think about the themes of your campaign that we talked about in the past couple of articles. Defining your gods and parts of your mythology is a great way to tie those themes into the larger world – and it’s a great way to put that knowledge into the hands of players, peppering your responses to successful History and Religion checks with information from the mythology you’ve built.

In my case, I knew I wanted to run an artifact campaign that dealt with relics of the gods, and I knew that some great cataclysm had befallen at least one part of the world at some point in history (remember the Bonewood?). I also knew that the town of Standing Rock contained a mystery in the form of a huge, monolithic tower.

This got me thinking about the tower. What is it? Where did it come from? Why is it there?

I started wondering if maybe the tower was linked to the gods and the mythology of the world in some way. I started to think about the gods as powerful entities who rose to their status as deities through some great act. I like the idea that the gods were originally mortals – it hints to the players that they might one day be able to rise to that level of power (especially if the end-game of the campaign is going to be dealing with world-shaping artifacts).

This prompted the question – what did they do to attain deification? The obvious answer – and the one that I went with – is that they fought some great evil. Chaos reigned, and these powerful figures banded together to restrain it.

This still doesn’t tell me anything about the tower, though. I decided that each of the gods is said to have had a stronghold that served as their base of operations, and possibly functioned as a conduit for their power in some way. I began to think of the gods as Lords, overseeing the world from their towers – towers which had once existed in the physical world, and which legends say could still be found.

Whether the monolith at Standing Rock is one of these towers or not is unknown – both to the players, and to myself at this point – but I now have a solid reason for the interest in that tower, too. It’s the only thing like it that has ever been located, and so there is great interest in determining whether or not this tower is one of the fabled Lords’ Towers.

Fleshing It Out

With these thoughts in mind, I turned to the rulebooks. This is the point at which you want to think about specific gods. I made a list of all the cleric domains in the game, and began to match them to those that seemed to fit thematically. Initially I wanted to have a pantheon of 7 gods, but it didn’t feel right. 7 is a number that shows up everywhere, from the Rod of Seven Parts to the 7 Dragon Balls and Voldemort’s 7 Horcruxes. Sets of 7 show up everywhere, and while that means it feels right and familiar to players, I wanted to do something different.

In thinking about this, I had begun to refer to my campaign as “The Lords of the Seven Towers”, and while that didn’t quite feel right, “The Lords of the Nine Towers” did. I can’t explain that, other than to say that it’s an aesthetic decision that felt right to me. Remember, this is your creation: sometimes, “it felt right to me” is the only explanation you need.

Having decided on 9 gods, I began to refine my groupings of domains into 9 sets and began to think about the 9 gods themselves. I’ve never been a huge fan of worlds where the presence of the gods is felt strongly and lots is known about them; I prefer a bit of mystery, and I like the idea of separate factions of different religions who interpret things differently. It feels much more real to me than a world in which you can state facts about the gods with absolute certainty.

This train of thought led me to a fairly easy decision. The gods don’t have personal names. They function more as archetypes or concepts, referred to in more abstract terms e.g. The Healer, The Judge, and the like. This is what I came up with:

  • The Healer (LG) – Life, Light, Knowledge
    The Healer watches over the sick and feeble, and provides knowledge to those who seek it. Myths tell how the Healer fought with the Raven Queen over who should choose when people die, but scholars argue that both gods also oversee the Life domain, and that their purposes are not at odds with one another. The Healer and the Raven Queen are seen by many as being two facets of the same god, and as such the Healer is often (though not exclusively) depicted as being male.
  • The Raven Queen (LN) – Life, Death*
    Not so much worshipped as appeased. It is known that death is the price of life, and believed that the Raven Queen rewards those who have lived full lives. Plenty of stories tell of the Queen punishing those who have lived sinful lives by choosing to bring them to death early, but scholars point out that if this were the case there would be very little evil in the world. It is generally believed that the Raven Queen simply observes, escorting people into death when their time comes but rarely intervening to either cut life short or extend it. The Raven Queen is exclusively depicted as being female.
  • The Seeker of Secrets (N) – Knowledge
    Said to be the entity who guards the secret of the nature of the Great Chaos’ imprisonment, the Seeker knows all. Some call the Seeker The Keeper of Secrets, and claim that the Seeker is also a god of Trickery. There is something of a schism in the church, some of whom argue that the Seeker and the Keeper are two entities at odds with one another and others who dismiss the existence of the Keeper entirely. Those who believe in both the Seeker and the Keeper are very much in the minority, if for no other reason than that would create a tenth Lord and thus render the myths of the empty Ninth Tower false.
  • The Gambler (CN) – Trickery
    Said to have decided which side to take in the Creation Wars by a roll of the dice, some regard the Gambler as evil. Others say it is the Keeper of Secrets, the opposite number to the Seeker. These people are more common than those who argue for a tenth Lord, but they are still a rarity. Whatever their beliefs, faithful folk still give a small prayer to the Gambler when things go their way, and a curse when they do not.
  • The Giant (CN) – War, Death
    Some are wary of the Giant, whose followers share stories of its great conquests and its thirst for violence. Though some believe the Giant to be evil, it is difficult to make that argument when the myths tell how the Giant’s forces led the charge against the Great Chaos, and that it was the Giant’s axe that struck the decisive blow in the battle. In many places the Giant is depicted as being an enormous orc, though human cultures tend to show it as a massive human.
  • The Phoenix (LN) – Life, Knowledge, Light
    The only Lord not represented as a humanoid of some kind. The Phoenix burns away lies and deceit to reveal the truth beneath, and burns out when it has cast its judgement. It is born again from the ashes, free of the knowledge of the judgement it has given and of anything that could bias future judgements. The judged are born again into a world where their sin has been burned away and they have received what they are due.
  • The Storm Lord (CN) – Nature, Tempest
    Scholars and initiates alike argue over whether the Storm Lord is an actual being or simply a throwback to a time when nature’s violent aspects were not understood and thus feared. Others argue that the dichotomy of brutal violence and beautiful serenity found in nature is a reflection of the Storm Lord’s tempestuous nature. The Storm Lord is often seen as the other face of the Lord of Thorns.
  • The Lord of Thorns (N) – Nature
    The Lord of Thorns rules over the natural world and its followers tend to be Rangers and Druids who see the Lord not as a person but instead deify nature itself. The Lord of Thorns is often represented as a giant four-horned stag, or a sinuous green drake. Some believe the Lord of Thorns is the peaceful aspect of the raging Storm Lord.
  • The Jester (CN) – Trickery
    Said to have been cast out from the towers for sowing discord and causing strife between the other Lords purely for its own entertainment. The Jester is seen by many as not being a full deity. It attracts the worship of rogues and criminals, and chapels are often found in the seedier parts of towns and cities. Large temples rarely, but sometimes, contain a shrine to the Jester. The Jester has a capricious nature, and myths abound with stories of believers who struck a deal with the Jester only to be betrayed.

Now I have my gods. I deliberately thought about the way the gods are said to have interacted with each other in myths and legends, because this will directly inform the way their followers interact with one another. Religious tension is a great source of conflict for your world.

This is now enough information to present to a player who would like to play a character of a religious bent. Note that I still don’t know who actually created the world – in my mythology the gods were mortals to begin with, so something came before them – but that’s fine. The only thing left to do is to introduce the enemy that brought these gods together – in my case, that’s The Great Chaos. It’s a big, ominous name that doesn’t really tell you anything specific – which is exactly what I like. All of this is in service of letting the game – and the world it’s set in – develop naturally around the table.

I also now know enough about my world to determine that Standing Rock probably holds quite a few temples, as worshippers of the different gods flocked to the monolith to try and determine if it had any connection to their deity. At this point, it’s time to build an introductory adventure for your players and get to the table!

In the next part of this series we’ll be moving away from Standing Rock and the Bonewood. My players spent a lot of time adventuring there, but there was very little worldbuilding done during those adventures. Unfortunately that game fell apart, and I had to gather a new party – which meant building another part of the world. But more about that next time!

*Having never played 4th Edition and only giving a cursory glance to the pantheons in 5th Edition, I hadn’t realised there was a deity in the game already who was called The Raven Queen. Imagine my surprise when she showed up in Critical Role! I have since changed this god’s name for my new campaign, but as this series is a guide to the process I went through while creating my setting, I thought it best to show the pantheon as it began. This is all part and parcel of creating something – sometimes you find that others have tread the same ground as you before, and you have to go back and change things to make it your own again.


Building A Campaign World – Part 2

In the last post I talked about some of the broad strokes of my campaign setting, putting together the basics of a starting area for the party and starting to think about the themes and direction of the campaign as a whole.

This time I want to get into something a little more specific. Today we’ll be looking at some of the characters my players created, and talking about how I took the information they gave me and worked it into the campaign world.

I’ve talked about the characters from my first 5th Edition campaign in the past, but one I haven’t mentioned much is Jaciv Scara, a dragonborn druid. During character creation, Jaciv’s player told me a few things that I made notes of to use in worldbuilding:

  • The dragonborn society she comes from is very attuned to nature. Druids are incredibly common.
  • Something has despoiled the dragonborn homeland, and younger druids – such as Jaciv – are sent out into the wider world to seek out a place to settle and tend, as they have tended their current lands for generations.
  • These dragonborn lands are a long, long way from the place where the adventures are going to happen.
  • Dragonborn (or at least the dragonborn Jaciv comes from) hate orcs.

These were all things Jaciv’s player told me off the top of her head as I asked questions about her character, and they are all things that found their way into the world. At this stage in the game, though, I simply noted these down for future reference, picking the piece of information that seemed the most immediately relevant to use in my early development of the setting.

I was interested by the idea that Jaciv was on a quest to find new lands for her people. I’d been struggling to think of other ways to inject the themes of the campaign into the starting area, but it seemed to me that Jaciv had handed me a gift. As well as the monolith in Standing Rock, I could make use of the idea of a huge scar of some kind on the land. What if the land near Standing Rock was filled with a sprawling petrified forest, completely devoid of any sign of life but practically throbbing with magical energy? That seems like the kind of place a precocious, arrogant dragonborn might pick to try and restore to life (Jaciv’s player had told me that while Jaciv is fairly intelligent and well-intentioned, she also thinks far too highly of herself and her own abilities. Why would she simply find somewhere beautiful for her people when she could build something herself?)

With these thoughts in my head, the Bonewood sprung up to the west of Standing Rock. Now I have a starting area rich with mystery – and history – with a site that’s purpose-built to attract curious, foolhardy adventurers right on its doorstep.

The other benefit of this was that I knew Jaciv’s player wasn’t going to be able to make it to the first game session. It’s often difficult to introduce new characters, but here I had a ready made solution. I could start the group outside Standing Rock – not using the standard “you all meet in a tavern” opening but instead going with the just-as-standard “you have been hired on as guards for a merchant caravan” opening and, through a serious of unfortunate events, funnel them first to Standing Rock and then on to the Bonewood, where they would meet a lone dragonborn attempting to bring life back to the land and facing some horrible consequences that she couldn’t solve alone.

As we’re thinking about the characters going to Standing Rock, let’s us go back there for a moment as well. Remember that gnomish merchant, Barnum Rekel? When we left him we knew very little about him, but while Jaciv’s player was filling me in on the role of the dragonborn in my setting, Ash was giving me some information about Manbearpig that proved to be very useful.

You may remember me talking about Captain Manbearpig in my article about character creation. After Ash told me about the pelt he wears – the skin of a real, honest-to-goodness man-bear-pig – I got to thinking about whether this creature actually exists or not. If it did, I wanted to acknowledge it in some way that felt natural. After a little brainstorming, my mind came back to Barnum Rekel. Rather than your standard armour/weapons/healing potions vendor, what if Rekel instead specialised in rare and unusual creatures – both in selling their pelts and other bits, and in outfitting people to hunt these strange monsters?

I fleshed out his shop a little, writing notes about racks of furs and pelts, strings of teeth and tusks and tails hanging from the ceiling, about the musty, animal smell in his store. And, importantly, I decided that he knew about the man-bear-pig, a creature that he knows as the Mantiboar. Now he’s gone from a paper-thin, cookie-cutter shopkeeper to a character with some depth and purpose, and a built-in connection to one of the characters that that character – and, of course, the person playing that character – will have no idea about until the group meet this NPC through the natural flow of the game.

Look back over this post and the one that preceded it. Think about how little work I actually did here. And yet I’m already starting to flesh out this area of the campaign world, injecting cool imagery with hints at a deep history of the world (whether that actually exists yet or not), NPCs who react to the characters in interesting ways that don’t feel forced, and all while wrapping it up in the stories of the characters that the players developed.

In order to stop this post going really long I’ve had to cut it in half. In the next part I’ll talk about the role of mythology and the gods in your setting, and whether you actually need to bother spending time developing them. We’ll also take a quick look at another character’s background, and how combining it with the information I had about Jaciv spawned a part of the setting that even I didn’t know was going to exist until it appeared in my head.

Building A Campaign World – Part 1

Building a campaign world can be a daunting task. One glance at an official setting of any sort – be it the Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun, Greyhawk, or whatever – can almost be enough to put you off entirely. These worlds are huge and detailed, with characters and politics and history that you could spend a lifetime reading and writing about. How can something you create yourself possibly compete?

The answer is a simple one: you don’t need to compete.

Your players come to your table every week (or every month, or however often you play) to have fun telling stories about their characters. While it’s awesome to know what Baron von Crazypants is doing over in the Duchy of Dingleberries, it’s not actually necessary. True, some of your players – and, probably, you yourself – might really enjoy that level of detail, at the beginning of a game it simply isn’t necessary. The only things that matter are the things affected the players’ characters right now, or the things that might affect them in the near future. As a rule, that’s all your players care about – and for the most part, I think it’s the only thing you should care about.

There are plenty of books and articles out there that will tell you the broad strokes of world-building – things like the difference between bottom-up and top-down worldbuilding, how to design political systems and factions, guidelines to writing sweeping histories of your world. I’ll link to a few good resources at the end of this post, but I should say off the bat that this isn’t going to be another series like them (and it is going to be a series, because there’s no way I can cover all this stuff in one post). Instead, I want to take you through the process that I went through while building my campaign world – the process that I go through while building all of my worlds.

Starting Big and Small

The Big

Ideas about top-down and bottom-up world building are great, but personally I find that they just don’t work for me. Instead, what I prefer to do is a combination of the two approaches, driven and informed by the kind of story I want to tell* and the kind of characters who are going to be in it.

The first thing I do when designing a new campaign world is the think about the larger themes of the campaign itself. Even if my desired end-game is months away, I want the themes and images that I’m hoping to evoke for my players to be visible in the world from session one.

For The Nine Towers campaign**, I knew from the beginning that I wanted it to be about gods in some way. Ever since I read TSR’s incredible Rod of Seven Parts campaign box set – which I never had a chance to play – I’ve wanted to run an artifact campaign. Now, obviously artifacts are not to be handed out willy-nilly to first level characters – they’re world-shaping, epoch-defining magical items. I wasn’t planning to drop a load of artifacts into my world and send the players on a fetch quest for 20 levels. In fact, I wasn’t even planning to include or mention the existence of the artifacts – whatever they turn out to be – until much later in the campaign.

So why is this relevant? Well, as I said, artifacts are world-shaping. Even if they haven’t appeared in the world for centuries, some remnant of their last emergence should exist in the world. So, my first step in building this world is simple. Artifacts exist in this world and, at some point in the distant past, shaped the physical landscape in some way. This feeds directly in to…

The Small

I know that some great magic has shaped the world in some way, and I know that I want to signpost this from the very beginning – even if the players don’t know that’s what’s happening. The obvious choice is to include evidence of these artifacts in the first place the players will visit.

When you read about bottom-up world-building, you’ll generally be advised to start with only the town the players begin their adventuring careers in. That’s what I do next – but it’s much easier than it could be now that I’m armed with the knowledge of the themes and ideas I want the campaign to explore.

I want the starting settlement to exhibit some evidence of the last time the artifacts were here. So I start brainstorming. Maybe magic behaves strangely here? Maybe people have visions of long-dead residents? Maybe once a year an epic wizard battle rages across the sky, a silent and harmless flashback from a distant age? Or perhaps the ground is scarred in some way, blasted and torn by something nobody remembers?

I think I filled three A4 pages with ideas. Then I went through and started knocking them out, either because they weren’t cool enough or because they introduced too many complications. Here’s a little example of my thought process here.

  • Magic behaves strangely here.

In theory I like this idea. Wild Magic tables are an old favourite of mine from 2nd Edition, when Spell Failure was a thing and low-level adventurers were made out of glass and hope. My concern was that my players were all new to the game, and the first few sessions were going to involve teaching them the rules. It didn’t seem fair to them to introduce the complications of Wild Magic and Spell Failure at a level where they have so few resources and don’t fully understand how to play the game. For that reason, this is out.

  • People have visions of long-dead residents

In all honesty, I wrote this down and immediately didn’t like it. It’s a nice idea for a one-shot game or even a small campaign arc, but as a signpost of things to come I don’t think it works. Players will see this and immediately latch on to it as a mystery to be solved – at which point there either needs to be a mystery to be solved, and once it’s solved it’s gone; or you need to tell the players that there’s no mystery here, at which point they feel silly for having latched on to the “wrong” thing. It’s a great plot hook, but it’s not doing what I want it to do. It’s too obvious.

  • An epic wizard battle rages across the sky once a year, and the players are there to witness it

Another one that, frankly, I just don’t like. It suffers from a similar problem to the dragon attack at the beginning of Hoard of the Dragon Queen, in that the players aren’t going to want to go towards the giant magic fight in the sky that’s obviously way beyond their abilities to compete with, and when they do go to it (probably because you forced them to in some way) they’re going to be disappointed to find that they can’t interact with it in any meaningful way. I like the image and the idea – it certainly worked for Robert Jordan in The Wheel of Time series – but I’d prefer to save it for later in the campaign. I store this one away in my notes, and forget about it for now.

  • The ground is physically scarred in some way

Although it’s a little bit trite, I actually like this. While it’s still a mystery that the players might want to investigate, it’s not an event in the same way as wild magic or a magical sky battle. It’s something that can simply exist, something that NPCs can explain away as simply a feature of the landscape or a curiosity.

In fact, the more that I think about it in those terms – a curiosity – the more I like it, even though I don’t know what it is yet. I’ve never questioned whether tourism exists in a fantasy world – but why wouldn’t it?

At this point I start thinking about cool things that would attract people from all over to come and see for themselves. I make another list – which I won’t dissect here, for the sake of brevity – and eventually I settle on a tall, bone-white monolith or tower that rises out of the ground towards the skies. Its origin and purpose are a mystery, and people come from miles around either to study it or simply to see it.

I decide that it has been there longer than anybody can remember, and that researchers have begun excavating the ground around the tower to try and find an entrance of some kind or an indication of its purpose. That’s all I need to know, because that’s all anybody knows. Later in the campaign I can tie this in to the artifacts in some way, and it will seem like I had everything planned months or years in advance. Yet all I did was stick a tower in the ground and shrug my shoulders when people asked me what it was.

Building the settlement itself is easy at this point. As more people came to investigate this strange monolith, traders and the like came to the site to supply the researchers. Over a few decades a bustling market town arose, centered around this giant tower. Alongside the mercantile aspects of the town, there is also a great interest in scholarly pursuits, and in magical research. Temples sprung up around the tower as various faiths tried to claim it as a relic of their own god. At some point there were far too many people scrabbling around the tower, fighting with each other for space to dig and trying to sabotage each others’ research – so it follows that there’s a Guild of Researchers, or some such thing, in the town. The whole economy of this place revolves around an interest in magic and the unexplained, so there are also plenty of merchants here dealing in trinkets and minor magical items – nothing powerful or game-changing, but just enough to get a flavour of the place.

At this point I sketch out the bare bones of an NPC or two. I put a gnomish merchant called Barnum Rekel in the town. Being that he’s a gnome, he’s been here for a very long time. I decide that he’s an old travelling merchant, something of a snake oil salesman, who saw an opportunity in this place and began to sell his useless baubles and potions dressed up as mystical artifacts of the tower. At some point he transitioned into the role of a more traditional merchant – he wouldn’t last long conning people – but he still has a sharp sense of profit vs. Loss and isn’t averse to massively overpricing relatively inane items if he can get away with it.

Putting it Together

Now I have a settlement – I decide to call it Standing Rock, because that’s what the tower was known as before the excavations start – and an NPC. I still don’t have an adventure for the players, but I have an interesting location that signposts some of the things that will happen later in the campaign and an NPC who can provide information and, maybe, quests. My next step is to have the players build their characters. Once I know who is going to be adventuring in this world, I can move on to the next step.

Check back on Friday for part two of this series, when I’ll introduce you to some of the characters my players created and show you how their backgrounds helped to develop the world and kick-start the adventure.

*Note that I said the kind of story I want to tell, not the specific story I want to tell. Going in to a new campaign with a set plan of what you want to happen is, in my eyes, a recipe for disaster. I’ll talk more about that in a future post.
**To clarify – because I know some of my players read this site! – I’m not talking about my current campaign here, but the last one I ran. They both take place in the same world.

DM Tips – Using Player Handouts

Some of my fondest memories of playing D&D back in the ‘90s don’t come from the games themselves. Instead, they come from the hours I spent digging through the massive boxed sets that TSR used to produce – worlds and cities and epic adventures laid out in minute detail, with exquisite poster-sized maps and tons of images, maps and notes to be handed to players. I remember pulling out the boringly titled Player Handout 11 from Dragon Mountain and just loving the depth something like this can bring to the game.

Dragon Mountain - Player Handout 11 - ©1993 TSR, Inc.
©1993 TSR, Inc.

The Dragon Mountain adventure books never fully explain what this handout is. It’s found in a slave den inside the Kobold-infested mountain, with no explanation of how it got there or what area it’s referring to. I remember wanting to know who drew the map, who annotated it, why they were in the mountain, whether they ever got out alive. What are the “pests”? And, when I actually got the adventure to the table, I got to witness my players go through the same questions themselves. The world suddenly felt alive, bigger than just the area inhabited by the PCs, and that was a great thing.

As a writer, I’ve often heard the advice to “show, don’t tell”. On the surface, it seems like player handouts are the perfect time to put that advice to use. Why tell the players what a letter or journal entry says when you could hand them a copy of it and let them read it for themselves? Over the years, I’ve made plenty of handouts for my players, very much inspired by the things I found in those old TSR box sets.

Sometimes I was lucky, and they did exactly what I wanted them to do – enhance the story, and the world, and maybe provide a clue to a good next move for the players. Unfortunately, though, that is not always the case.

I’ve already talked a little bit about my current campaign. The party tracked a bandit back to a ruined fort in the forest, where they expected to find the bandit leader (who had already fled due to general dicking-around by the party and a standard Leroy Jenkins moment from Captain Manbearpig). Once they reached the top of the tower they found a map marked with the location where they had been ambushed and the name of the merchant they had been travelling with, along with two other locations and very brief notes on who was to be robbed and when. I thought it would provide a good hook to pull the party on a cross-country chase.

Yes, that’s drawn on a newspaper from 1886. No, I don’t care this it’s not actually very good.

It did, but not without a little gentle handholding from me. The party pored over the map, trying to pick up clues from it but never noticing the notes written at the top of the page.

This is the downfall of handouts that are designed to progress the plot. If the party find a letter and you simply tell them that it contains a reference to a person, or a location, or whatever, the players immediately suspect that this is important – because you’ve taken the time to mention it. (Some people would argue that this is meta-game thinking and shouldn’t be encouraged. They’re mostly right, but sometimes it simply helps keep the game running smoothly. In addition, you’re always free to throw in a few red herrings to prevent them from immediately latching on to every word that comes out of your mouth.) If, on the other hand, you give them a handout that contains that same information hidden in amongst lots of fluff, though, and it’s just as likely that they’ll fixate on some tiny detail you added in a pique of creativity. Sometimes that’s great – I’ll be writing about how you can use this to add real depth to your games in a future post – but sometimes it’s the opposite of what you and the players want.

In the case of my poorly annotated map, the players were stumped. They wanted to pursue the bandits, and I thought I’d given them the means to do that, but with two seemingly random marks on the map they didn’t know where to go next. That was nobody’s fault but mine.

So, how do you deal with a situation like this? I didn’t want to step in as the DM and point out what they had missed, because the party were fully immersed in discussing this map in character. I didn’t want to ruin that.

Instead I asked Adam/Tharin – the cleric, who was holding both the map and the highest Wisdom score at the table – to make a Perception check. Mentally I set the DC at 10, because although I needed him to notice this text I still wanted there to be a chance of failure (after all, the plays had essentially failed their own Perception rolls to spot this same thing). Still, with a +5 to Perception, I knew Tharin had a pretty good chance of making such a low DC. The roll was a success. As the player’s examined the map I told Tharin that he suddenly noticed the writing at the top of the page – and, lo and behold, Adam suddenly noticed the writing at the top of the page. Everybody laughed that they had missed it, and the game got back underway.

I’ve had similar things happen over the years, and there’s not really any way to judge whether a handout will do what you want it to do until it’s on the table, at which point it’s a little too late to do anything about it if it causes problems. What I’ve found – and the way I intend to plan my games in future – is that the best handouts are those which help develop the world and the characters within it without really impacting on the immediate plot.

The real magic of D&D – the thing that separates tabletop gaming from video games – is in seeing a world and its people come to life and respond to the things that the players do. To take yet another example from my current game, Captain Manbearpig recently encountered a gnomish merchant who seemed to know about things that nobody but the Captain should know about. He also knew about the ManBearPig that the Captain both hunts and wears the pelt of (I know, I know – my group are truly ridiculous), and after much discussion he and the merchant arranged for some custom-designed arrows to be made to help bring down the ManBearPig, should the Captain ever encounter another one.

What Ash doesn’t know yet – and I’m hoping he won’t read this article and ruin the surprise – is that when he returns to town he’s going to find it plastered with tacky adverts for these new arrows. (Impress Your Friends! Mutilate Your Enemies! Slay the Fabled Mantiboar! You get the idea). And the real fun of it is that I’m not going to describe these posters to him. I’m going to hand one to him.

I don’t know how Manbearpig will react, but I can’t wait to find out. And unlike hiding a clue in a journal entry, there’s nothing riding on this. It’s a little bit of fun, and if it goes well the world will feel that much more real. And if Manbearpig brushes it aside and forgets about it? That’s fine. It won’t affect the game in any way.

As always, if there’s anything you think I’ve missed or anything you disagree with, if you have any fun stories or cool handouts you want to share, and if there’s anything you’d like to see covered in future posts, let me know in the comments.

DM Tips – Running Your First Session

This was originally posted to Critters RPG.

Even if you’ve been playing D&D for years, preparing to run a campaign – or even just a one-off session – can be a daunting task. And if you’ve never run a game before – or if you and your group are all completely new to role-playing games – it can be downright terrifying.

It’s true that DMing is a lot of work, but you shouldn’t let that put you off. DMing is, in my opinion, the most fun and rewarding way to experience playing D&D. Today we’ll take a peek behind the screen and look at some of the things I do to help make that all-important first session go smoothly. They may not all work for you, and that’s fine; and if there’s anything you think I’ve missed, please let me know in the comments!

“Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?”

Before you start thinking about what you want to happen in the game, it’s important to decide exactly what shape your first session is going to take. If the players are all seasoned pros, that’s easy; they’ll probably come to the table with characters pre-made, and you can launch straight into the game.

Sometimes, though, that won’t be the case. Let’s assume that you’re all new to the game. In that case, you’re going to need to create characters before you can do anything. As I’ve talked about in my last couple of posts, character creation is something that you’ll want to do together as a group the first time you play.

The ideal length of time for a D&D session varies from group to group, but I find that somewhere in the region of 3-4 hours – with a break in the middle – works well in most situations. For your first session, I’d say expect to spend the first couple of hours on making characters. Players are going to have questions, they’re going to be unsure what kind of character they want to play, and they’re going to spend an inordinate amount of time poring over lists of spells that they have no chance of being able to cast at 1st level. This part of the night is not something you want to rush; this will be people’s first experience of the game. Savor it and enjoy it; these characters are new and pure. They will never look like this again.

The second half of the night (or day, or evening, or whatever) is game time. And because you’ve already planned ahead and know that this session is going to be shorter than future games, you can build the adventure with that time constraint in mind.

For new players, I think it’s important to do two things quickly; the first is to get them comfortable role-playing their characters as soon as possible (although some groups prefer to describe their actions rather than role-play them – and that’s fine). The second is to teach the rules.

The old cliché of D&D is that all campaigns start in taverns. It’s tried and true; you as the DM can easily step into the role of an overly-friendly landlord or barkeep who takes a distinct interest in the group and why they’re in town, and has some rumors to spread that point the way towards the group’s first real adventure. And if all else fails, it’s easy to have somebody burst into the tavern in need of help, or with nefarious goals in mind. And in their banter with you as the innkeeper, you’ve got them role-playing.

When in Doubt Have a Man Come Through a Door with a Gun in His Hand

That leads me to the second thing part; get the players into combat as quickly as possible. Until they’re actually rolling dice, players might not really get what their characters can do. A couple of sheets of paper with abilities and numbers written on it does not a character make; it’s how that character acts when their life is on the line that makes the stories you’ll remember for years to come. You don’t need to go through all the rules with your players in advance; the best way to learn is to do, so send someone into that room with a knife and let your players start chucking d20s at them.

Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to taverns. My most recent campaign began with the party travelling with a merchant caravan (another cliché, but one that also works). It wasn’t long before the party found that the bridge had been collapsed and bandits were abseiling down the cliff above them intent on stealing a very specific object from the caravan. The characters had a task – protect the caravan – and an instant threat to the success task, along with an immediate goal in recovering the stolen artifact that fueled the rest of this session and the next one.

One thing to bear in mind; no matter how much preparation you do, the game only exists with the cooperation of your players. You can do all the planning in the world, but if your players want to go off and explore you should let them. The best stories are the ones the players tell themselves, without any prompting from you – and it’s easy for you to change things around behind the scenes so that you still get to do the cool stuff you want to do.

Maybe you’ve spent days mapping out and populating a dungeon in the sewers, but the party decide to hike out and investigate the ruined keep on the horizon that you mentioned in passing. Let them. Once they’re there they could find that the surface level of the keep in abandoned, but a dark passage leads below the earth, and horrors lie beneath… Throw in your sewer dungeon, and you’re good to go.

I find that a good game comes down to two basic premises; let your players do what they want to do, and if you’re ever in doubt – wing it. (If you’re reading this, you probably watch Critical Role. Go away now and watch Episode 12. Matthew takes a couple of players who have never played before and, with no preparation at all, runs one of the most fun sessions I’ve ever seen.)

The first session is really about introducing the game, setting up the beginnings of a story that your players can get excited about, and managing their expectations for the game going forward. Bear in mind when you’re prepping for the game that you will probably never have as much time to plan for a session as you will for the first one. If you run a game with a few combats and you have beautifully illustrated battle maps for every single one of them, and stunning handouts showing characters and items that the party encounters, you might find that your players are a little disappointed when week two doesn’t have quite the same production values.

If you know you’ll have the time to produce these things then absolutely go for it! I’d only suggest trying to keep things consistent week to week. Nothing can kill your enthusiasm and enjoyment as a DM more than seeing disappointment on your players’ faces – and though you want them to have fun, you need to make sure that you are enjoying the game too. DMing shouldn’t begin to feel like work. If you’re as excited to play as your players are, then you’re doing it right.

Always leave them wanting more

Especially after the first game, you want your players to go home excited to come back and play again. Maybe the group levels up after the first session, and everybody wants to carry on playing so they can see what their new abilities and spells do. Or maybe they returned to the tavern only to find that goblins have tunneled up through the cellar and left everybody dead – and they’ll have to wait for next week to get revenge. Be as cheesy as you like. Cheese and cliché exist because they’re effective. Don’t be afraid of them.

You’ll find while you’re playing that you forget how some rules work, or that you aren’t sure how to handle some situations. That’s fine, and it’s part of the game. I’ve found that the best thing to do if you can’t find the real rule quickly is to just make a ruling for the time being, promise to look it up later for future reference, and move on. Don’t sweat it, and don’t dwell on it. You’re all learning the game, and nobody is expected to be an expert immediately. I’ve been playing D&D since the early ‘90s, and in my first 5e session I still had to look things up and wing a few decisions just to keep the game moving.

It’s more important that everybody has fun than that the rules are followed strictly, and I promise that if everybody has fun nobody will care that you couldn’t remember how grapple works. That said, the best aid for this kind of thing is the official 5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Screen. As well as containing quick tables for a lot of the more commonly-used rules, it also gives you quick and dirty guides to setting DCs and a table for generating random NPC names for that moment when the enormous fighter decides to stop and chat to a passing gnome in the street and you don’t have anything prepared.

That’s it! Congratulations, you’ve successfully run your first session. Now all that’s left to do is decide on a schedule, and maybe talk about what happens if somebody can’t make it one week. And then you really are done – but you should probably start planning for the next session. And the next one. And the next one…

Next time we’ll be looking at some ways you can allow your players to build your campaign world for you. Leave a comment if you liked this article, and if there’s anything you’d like to see covered in future posts let us know!

Character Creation in 5th Edition – Part 2

Last time we looked at two players who came to the table with characters in various stages of development. One character I didn’t mention, played by Adam, came to the table fully formed. It’s always nice when a player who is new to the game takes the time to read the Player’s Handbook and go through character creation before the first session. It really lightens the load on your Dungeon Master (although always be sure to double check what they’ve done before you start playing, just in case anything has been overlooked).

Sometimes, though, you’ll have a player who has their heart set on playing a character that seems far too ridiculous to ever work. Today we’ll be looking at some ideas you can use to create a great character from the silliest ideas.

Armin Tamzarian, Elf Warlock
Eamon presented us with the most difficult challenge yet. He knew nothing about D&D and had no idea what to expect. He simply stated that he wanted to play an Esquilax and left it at that.

Esquilax - Critters D&D: Unofficial Critical Role FansiteI have a confession to make. I’ve never seen The Simpsons, so I had no idea what an Esquilax was. When I learned it was a horse with the body of a rabbit and the head of… a rabbit, I laughed. Until Eamon turned up on game night and seemed genuinely disappointed that he couldn’t be an Esquilax. Then my heart sank a little.

So I put the books away, I (mostly) feigned ignorance, and I asked him what an Esquilax was. And I sank into character, of sorts. I didn’t say “That’s stupid, and it doesn’t exist in D&D, pick something else.” I asked him where they live, and how many of them there are, and why I’ve never seen one. I asked him if he had ever seen one, and when, and where. He told me he had captured one once, and that he had traded it away for magic – magic that he was going to use to catch more Esquilax.

Boom. Suddenly, we have a character – and this new player, who has never played an RPG before, is already speaking as that character without realizing it. I showed Eamon the Warlock description, and he was astonished at how perfectly it fit what he had described. We picked the Archfey patron simply because it listed Oberon as an example, and Eamon likes A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Then we picked some spells that he liked the sound of, things that might be useful when hunting Esquilax. And, suddenly, we had gone from a ridiculous, unworkable idea to a completed character sheet.

Obviously you won’t always get that lucky. You probably won’t have a player who happens to describe one of the Classes in the Player’s Handbook perfectly without having seen them in advance of character creation. But that’s where your preparedness as a DM comes in. It wouldn’t have been hard in that situation to ask semi-leading questions to guide Eamon into a Class that felt right to him. Once I had him talking about his character as though it already existed, the work took care of itself.

Although the characters started off silly, by the end of the first session they were working really well. In an unexpected fit of roleplaying genius, Manbearpig developed a huge crush on Wutang after the first time she dropped two enemies in one turn. He went from the silent tank to one of the funniest characters at the table, because the players had built characters rather than lists of numbers. And Armin – who had a ridiculously high Charisma and a jealous streak – decided he didn’t like seeing flirting that he wasn’t involved in, and took every opportunity he could get to scupper Manbearpig’s attempts to get Wutang’s attention. Half of the first session was the players sitting around talking crap to each other, and having a great time of it.

5th Edition really encourages this kind of character development over the min/maxing that dominated 3rd and 4th editions, and I love it. I highly recommend that, the next time you roll up characters, you start by putting the dice away. I promise you’ll have a good time.

Next time I’ll be talking about ideas for DMs who want to build their own campaigns, with ideas about developing a plot without railroading the players and resources for world building and map-making. Until then, leave a comment and let us know about the awesome characters you’ve been playing, and if there’s anything else you’d like to see me cover in a future article!

Character Creation in 5th Edition – Part 1

Whether you’re completely new to the world of roleplaying and Dungeons and Dragons, or you’ve been playing since the original edition, character creation can be a daunting task. Maybe you’ve got a great idea for a character sitting in your head, desperate to be let loose on the world, but have no idea how to translate that idea into numbers and skill lists. Or maybe you simply have no idea what you want to play, and are staring at lists of races and classes feeling overwhelmed by the options available.

Or maybe you’re a DM, and one of your players has come to you with an idea for a character so ridiculous that you just know it won’t work – but they’re new to the game, and they’re excited about this idea, and you don’t want to discourage them.

What do you do? It can be hard to know where to start. The Player’s Handbook contains a fantastic step-by-step guide to building a character. If you’re really stuck for ideas it even contains lists of randomly generated backgrounds, goals, flaws and secrets that can provide endless inspiration for characters, but the sheer amount of options available can make it hard to settle on one thing.

Rather than any kind of one-size-fits-all, Buzzfeed-style list (Watch What She Does During Character Creation. DMs Hate Her!) I thought I’d talk about some of the characters that my players created for our new campaign. Although I’ve been playing D&D for a couple of decades now, I’m new to 5th Edition – and all of my players are new to the game entirely. They came with a range of ideas, and I hope that looking at how we turned their weird and wonderful imaginations into fun, playable characters will give you some inspiration for making your own PCs.

Wutang, Half-Orc Monk
We’ll start with the least ridiculous, the character that came to the table most fully-formed and just needed fleshing out a little. Hollie wanted to be a tank, but also liked the idea of being stealthy and agile. She liked the idea of playing a character who had been cast out from her own people for some reason, and when she saw the Half-Orc class she liked the idea of a character who had been raised among Orcs but had always been the runt of the litter, looked down on because of her human blood and smaller size. That naturally led to questions of how the human world saw her, and she realized that she would go from being a good-for-nothing weakling to some kind of monstrosity.

For players who want to be quick, nimble fighters, Monk is one of the best options to take – and the background that Hollie had just developed based purely on seeing the words “Half-Orc” lined up perfectly with that class. Where else would a Half-Orc go after being shunned by both the orcs and the humans?

We still don’t know much about why Wutang left the monastery, but for now that’s fine. As the game progresses we’ll come back to her, and she may find that one day the party returns to the monastery that she left – whether she likes it or not.

Captain Manbearpig, Human Fighter
Ash came up with two very short snippets for characters – “knight elf mohawk”, and ManBearPig – half man, half bear, and half pig. He couldn’t decide between the two – and, honestly, I was struggling to think of how ManBearPig could be anything playable, and was thinking up builds for a “knight elf mohawk” (whatever that is) – and decided to make use of the Backgrounds section of the Player’s Handbook.

He skimmed through the backgrounds, and settled on the Outlander background – which grants him a trophy from an animal he has killed. This, of course, became the pelt of a ManBearPig. He decided that his character was a hunter of the fabled ManBearPig, and the only person known to have killed one. Then he rolled on the Personality Trait table, and we discovered that he was, in fact, raised by wolves.

That’s the bones of a great character right there, even without generating Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws, but how does that translate in to game mechanics? With the Outlander background most people would expect to be playing a Ranger or a Druid, but didn’t really want to concern himself with magic and just wanted to hit things. He also doesn’t really care for the number-crunching, poring over options style of playing – again, he just wanted to get to the table and let his character hit things.

We settled on Fighter, because at level 1 it really is quite straightforward. Here’s your armor, here’s your sword, go hit things. We rolled stats, and without any need for guidance from me he put his highest rolls in Strength and Constitution, figuring that he would need to be strong and able to soak up wounds. I didn’t need to explain that, because he had already internalized what his character was through developing the background. He was a big dude who hit things. And yet hitting things wasn’t all he did; he completely scuppered my planned showdown with a dire wolf by attempting to Intimidate it into submission – and rolling a natural 20.

Next time we’ll take a look at one more example – the player who came to the game with his heart set on playing the most foul, cruel and bad-tempered rodent you’ve ever set your eyes on. Check back on Thursday to see how that turned out.