The Perils of Starting a D&D Campaign

A Dungeons and Dragons campaign is filled with many memorable moments – the first player death, the first burning building, the ridiculous situations that occur just because dice HAPPENED to roll a natural 20 at a critical time. But one of the things that sticks in everybody’s mind is the first time the party meets.

Creating a new party is much harder than it sounds. Even before everybody sits down and introduces themselves, the DM has been hard at work, plotting the campaign and going through character creation with the players one by one. There are many factors to consider – what will the players most want from the campaign? Are they seeking chances to roleplay? Perhaps they most want to powergame – to optimise themselves as efficiently as possible to become amazing at everything they do. Perhaps they just want to hit stuff. All are perfectly valid attitudes (I’ve done my fair share of all three) but are not necessarily easy to marry when you have multiple players with different likes, dislikes and goals.

Here’s an example: recently I helped four people create characters for a campaign I was starting for them. The characters they created were 1 dragonborn fighter, 2 dragonborn sorcerers and a high elf bard. Now, when I go through character creation with players, I don’t give any indication of the characters being created by the other players. It’s entirely up to them whether they share their information and may impact how they play. Some people like being mysterious. Some may try to be sneaky later on. By revealing that information I am immediately impeding on their options as players.

But as illustrated by the party I got, this can have a knock on effect – less diverse party composition, which means it’s harder for the players to cover for each other’s weaknesses. You see, when a DM selects the encounters they’re going to use for the party, there’s more to think about than just the challenge rating. Sure, it’s extremely useful in making sure that you don’t send an archmage against them before they’re ready but there’s so much more to it.

Take the doppelrat. For those who don’t know, it’s a magical experiment gone wrong, courtesy of Kobold Press’s Tome of Beasts. A low-level encounter, doppelrats divide into each round, causing their number to grow exponentially, and thus, so does their damage output. For a party of melee users, this may be tricky. After all, you can only stab one rat at a time. But for say a dragonborn with an area of effect attack like the breath weapon, this encounter suddenly becomes a lot easier. The opposite also works. If you have an enemy that struggles against ranged attacks and none of the party focuses on melee, it ceases to be a challenge and the encounter loses it’s reason to be.

More than that though, with a diverse party, each party member has their own area of expertise. You need to win a one-on-one fight? Good thing we have a barbarian! You need to persuade a character urgently? It’s the bard’s time to shine! Need to sneak into a room? What would we do without our rogue? But with a homogenous party, some will inevitably be outshone in their area of expertise. Whomever has the highest modifiers is more likely to succeed.

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Source: Wizards of the Coast

There are advantages to similar parties however. If there weren’t, you wouldn’t get stories about all monk campaigns. First off, in the instance of my campaign, as I was running Horde of the Dragon Queen, it helped a lot to have three dragonborn. I had very little time to work with so having told them in my world that dragonborn used to be enslaved by dragons, regardless of alignment, they became very quickly invested in the plotline for vengeance and freedom. On top of that, it can promote a sense of rivalry and camaraderie. The two sorcerers might find themselves bonding over a shared dose of wild magic, had I given them a moment to breathe mid battle.

It also allows new players to learn about their abilities together. For instance, in the beginning the party feared and struggled with large groups of enemies. Being level one, a lot of the enemies are weak so the best way to present challenges is with groups, but the trade off is a critical hit can knock a player out if they’re not particularly tanky. As new players, they were still learning about their weapons and abilities so attacked with subpar weapons – daggers where swords would be more effective, a crossbow when they had spells etc. It was once one of the players decided to experiment and cast sleep, allowing a group that had lasted several rounds to go down and promptly be gutted like fish.

Lo and behold, in the next encounter, one of the dragonborn decided to use their breath weapon at the start, making the fight much easier as half the enemies were downed in the first round. As there were two more dragonborn in the party, the players knew they had a reliable way of making fights more manageable, which is exactly what they did.

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Source: Kobold Press – Tome of Beasts

Once the characters are sorted, the next step for any DM is figuring out how they’re going to bring the party together. Parties don’t always have similar alignments (though the DM can make houserules regarding that) and parties are always weakest at the beginning as the characters have no ties to one another. They are less likely to have specific goals and less interest in characters they don’t realise have significance. After all if a drow sees a cleric being chased through the street, they may decide to attack the hunted or worse yet, ignore them. Yes, you read that right. Ignored is worse than attacked.

When introducing the party, it’s always great for the party members decide the others are useful allies. That pragmatism usually gives them the reason to stick together until emotional bonds are formed. But conflict can also unite the group. If one player decides they fancy a prisoner, suddenly you have two party members connected and with such an unusual dynamic! As they go through, one will always assert control while the other will strive to undermine and level the playing field. This relationship can create all sorts of organic moments of humour from botched escape attempts, tension from a sudden betrayal, or bonds stronger than ever when they outgrow the prisoner/captor relationship and gain grudging respect for one another.

Obviously, this has the potential to go wrong. If the characters don’t stop fighting, you can end up with a session one player death. Even afterwards, there is a risk of death from infighting. But with good management from the DM’s side, this can make an unorthodox and exciting party that sets your campaign apart from others – something that’d be impossible if the characters had simply ignored one another.

Now this is one way a party may start to interact with one another, and some dungeon masters may find it harder to pull off – especially if it’s your first time. To those budding gods of their universe I say: don’t fear keeping it simple. Many a campaign has started with the cliché of meeting in the tavern. Some start with even less finesse and just immediately throw the party members in a fight to let them figure out the people who aren’t zombies may be allies here. This gets a lot of thrift for being unoriginal and there is an argument to be made there. But not all DMs have enough time or experience to craft an intricate story to introduce all the players one by one in a way that they get tied into the party together, especially when you remember the cardinal rule of being a dungeon master: the players WILL derail your plans. It may be in an insignificant way. It may be so bad that you need to cut short the session to figure out how to salvage the campaign. (I’d like to take this moment to apologise to my DM whom I’ve unwittingly done this to multiple times).

That is something that every dungeon master must learn to deal with so they can bounce back when the big enemy gets befriended instead of slain, that world saving artefact gets eaten by a dragon, or the patron paying your band of heroes has his home torched by a rogue fire spell. (Again, my bad). There is always a solution and quite often it can create some legendary moments in your party’s story. But in the beginning, your players are even less predictable than usual. You may have known them for a while but they don’t know their characters yet so how can you? These clichés are clichés for a reason – they are reliable and serve the purpose of getting the party together so you can tempt them with your plot hooks.

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Source: Wizards of the Coast

Plot hooks can come in all shapes and sizes, some less subtle than others. They can come in the form of a town in pitched battle, or perhaps the coronation of a monarch gone wrong. Maybe the adventurers wake up in a dark dungeon, or maybe they overhear a conversation in the inn. Trinkets have been known to provide some fantastic plot hooks in the past. Some DMs sprinkle several different hooks for different stories in and see which grab the attention of the party. Others throw the party in at the deep end and watch them figure it out. That’s the beautiful thing about Dungeons and Dragons – there’s no right or wrong way. You’re building a story together so as long as you’re all having fun, that’s all that matters.

That philosophy is more prevalent in the beginning of a campaign than any other point. The party may not get anything of note accomplished. They may spend their entire time getting drunk and thrown out of the inn. But the first session will set the tone for the campaign and will forever be in the memories of the party members. Let them desecrate the town’s shrine to Umberlee for a prank. Let them ignore the villain and spend the day arguing with an alehouse drake. Allow them a burning library. Your goal as a DM is to entice them so that they come out of that excited for session two. Besides… Actions always have consequences…