I’ve started a new campaign with a brand new group and I wanted to talk about how different this campaign is from the last one I ran, which was a solo game for 5 years or so. I’m going to focus on the setup and the actual session improvisations and decisions from a “low-prep DM”.
I’ve stepped away from D&D in my life a fair few times. Sometimes for years. I had been on a 2-year hiatus when I discovered reddit last year. My friend, in the solo game, and I just couldn’t sync our time and the game had fallen away.
There’s something very jarring about returning to the game after an absence. As a DM I mean. You aren’t the same as you were. Especially if you hadn’t really thought about the game much, as I hadn’t. You see things almost as a brand new DM again. Things all look at bit strange and some of the knobs and dials had changed. It was the same car, just in a different country.
I bring this up to illustrate that I too, have learned a ton from reddit. About the game. About lots of styles, opinions, methodologies and strategies. Shit I never would have thought of on my own.
2 months ago I started a new group. Hadn’t DM’ed for 2 years. These were complete strangers to me. Met them through /r/lfg. TERRIFIED? CHECK
I’m hoping that this will be an interesting peek into the mind of someone who prefers to improvise at the table, in the grand and noble hope that someone, somewhere, will be able to use it someday. MY WAY AIN’T YER WAY, and it shouldn’t be, but there is always something valuable to be learned by watching others – for good or for ill.
THE FIRST ENCOUNTER
The party and I had a discussion, pre-game. About the kind of story we wanted to explore.
This was also our first meeting between strangers, and while I was pretty worried, I hit a gorram home run.
Great people, who understood exactly where I was coming from, and had the same ideas about storytelling and D&D that I did, or mostly-so. We hung out for around 4-5 hours, getting to know each other, shooting the breeze, telling war stories, and talking about the kinds of stories that we had done, time and again, and the ones that were amazing and memorable, and a half-dozen ideas were brought up and discarded. We had synergy. I knew these people were going to become my friends, beyond just being cool gamers. Sometimes you just know. I got damn, damn, damn, damn, damn lucky. I know that.
No one had mentioned race, or class, or anything at this point. None of that mattered. No one was talking builds, and that suited me just fine. After a shitload of debate and following some blind and hilarious paths, we finally arrived at an interesting consensus – exploring the philosophy of war through the eyes of a defeated people. This was something none of us had done as adults, really, and it sounded really interesting.
I brought out my maps, and showed them the world. I talked about the continents. I fielded a ton of questions. We talked about how maybe playing a single-race party might be fun. I talked about the races that would fit our theme, and fielded a lot more questions. They decided on Moon Elf.
My world has 5 kinds of Elves – Sun, Moon, Silver, Dark and Grey. Sun and Moon were the only viable PC races. The Sun Elves were the opposite of our theme – they, in fact, ruled the world through their Emperor, and were a cruel and savage people, going so far as to enslave humanity and marginalize the Elves under their control.
THE DREADED HISTORY SECTION
Moon Elves and Sun Elves were once Elves, only. During the pre-history of my world, there was a war, and in that war, some Elves were seduced by Lloth, who drew out the Elves fear and terror to fuel her birth of the Dark Elves. The ensuing war nearly destroyed the fledgling life on the planet’s surface. There was a great Diaspora, and the Elves (and other races) fled the battlefield, thinking Lloth’s armies defeated, an attitude that nearly did wipe out the survivors when the Drow rose again.
Those Elves who fled to hide were known ever after as Moon Elves, a people who carried a twin shame – the weakness of their ancestors that led to the birth of the Drow and the ignominy of fleeing when victory over the Dark Elves had been all but assured.
THE INEVITABLE BACKSTORIES
The party would play Moon Elves. One wanted to be a Cleric of War. And he threw me a twist. He wanted to belong to a sect within the Moon Elf community that thought that the cultural shame that everyone carried was a weakness, and wanted to return the Moon Elves to their rightful place as noble, righteous folk – the way their ancestors were before the Chaos Wars. His father was not of this sect. He rejected his son’s fanatacism and clung to the “old” ways. Mother was “of the faith” as well as his Uncle (who was a leader in the sect’s powerbase). Hill Clan was his people.
One wanted to play a Sorcerer – a Chaos born one. A mystic, who advised the Clan Lords on occasion, who’s Cave Clan people lived underground, experimented with psychedelics, and had been seconded to the Hill Clan to advise their ruling council. He carried the shame of the Moon Elves, but believed that seclusion was preferable to persecution, and often tried to temper the War Cleric’s more extreme views.
One wanted to play a fighter – warrior son of a noble house. Except he threw me a twist. He was from a house 9th out of 15th in power. He aspired to greatness, but never would be, except through his own sheer delusion. His Valley Clan folk were sending a contigent with Lord Valley to the annual Clan Council, and the fighter stole a helmet and an identity from the first Noble house of their clan. He shed his old identity and became a cousin to an uncle of the Great House.
We felt that synergy arc around the table. This was going to be good. Hardcore was the watchword that got bandied about in that first meeting. The world should be alive and survival is not guaranteed – that death and its many cousins should travel in our hip pockets. That suited me fine. The place they had chosen, by virtue of choosing their race, was the Great Forest on Gemseed. The only (known) home of Moon Elves in the Realms, their people fought a daily battle for survival against the predations of hundreds of monster species in the uncharted wilds of the Emerald Hills – a twisting labyrinth of hills, sinkholes, caverns, gullies, mendicans and tors – all interspersed with running water, clumps of foliage masquerading as forest, and everydamnthing.jpg wanting to eat you, at all times.
All we needed was a starting location and the opening story hook – the catalyst, I now call it.
I decided that the Clan Elders meet every year to discuss the affairs of the 6 clans. Since the Fighter had insinuated himself into the contingent, I decided that the War Cleric’s mother was on the Elder Council and she would be at the meeting, and the Cleric said he would be there helping out with chores/food/etc… Sorcerer advised the War Cleric’s family, and so he would be there in a mostly minor capacity.
The Council Meeting was our starting location.
This is where we ended for the day. We pinned down Who, What, Where and Why. How would be up to them when we started with the first session.
I had wanted to do a Zero Level session with each of them, but we all are busy adults, and it wasn’t feasible, time-wise. I’m still bummed about that. Such an important tool for me anymore. I really need it to lock down my initial impressions of someone so I can watch them squiggle and change over a year or five. Its fascinating.
GETTING THE ENGINE MOVING
I still needed the catalyst. Well. I knew it was going to be something to do with fire. I like to keep my ideas pretty loose nowadays. Fire and them running is what I saw. That would come later.
I generally think about this stuff in the shower. Its quiet. I let my mind wander of this part of the world that I knew so well. I thought about the characters. I knew I had to start the story moving with the War Cleric. He was such an interesting guy, so ready for change – that eager kid who’s believed a lot of rhetoric from an older influence (his Uncle in this case) and is ready to sign up for the jihad.
I flashed on Vikings, the very first episode of the show. Crows scavenging the dead on a battlefield. The hero sees Odin where there was once a crow, among the dead.
This wasn’t in the show, but in my mind, on my own battlefield, with the War Cleric standing there, spattered in blood and exhausted, the God of War looks right into the Cleric’s eyes, and nods.
I got a shiver under the hot, running water. That was good. That had weight to it.
But then my mind does what it always does and says, “Surely it can’t be that simple?”
And a grin not unlike the Grinch’s, blossomed and stretched across my face until it hurt. Not the God of War, at all. The God of Deception (I’m not going to bother you with my names). The God of Deception appears on the battlefield that day, but he appears as the God of Insanity pretending to be the God of War. I didn’t know why and I didn’t know how. He knows that a moment is coming where this will serve his goals, but does not see exactly how, not yet. Even the Gods cannot see all ends. I didn’t question it. I’ve learned to trust my crazy ideas.
And so the idea was born. That my War Cleric, poor sap, was going to be colossally misled and given powers by a Deity that isn’t his own. Usurped and deceived, he would be a pawn in a larger game – one that I hadn’t even considered the parameters of yet.
I can hear some of you out there shifting in your chairs. I know. Its a shitty thing to do sometimes. But I knew my player – even after only 4 hours, I knew this guy would run with it and it would be a story I would always remember, something that I have come to realize I was right about – thank fuck. If he had broken down and cried I probably would not be writing this right now 🙂
So that’s all I knew. I didn’t have any idea about the Sorcerer or the Fighter, or where they all fit into this bigger picture. Honestly, I didn’t care. I trusted myself to figure it out at the table. Right there in the zone when you got NOTHING and somehow, somehow….
I knew I couldn’t go into this with absolutely no prep. I’m not that arrogant. I didn’t want to write plot, but I sure as damn hell needed to flesh out this area, the people and the overall situation. It was time for a Snapshot.
Map of the starting continent – The characters are all from the Great Forest, the only Moon Elf area on Gemseed.
I drew the local map of the forest. The hills. The two villages. About a dozen features, like campgrounds and the Druid circle. A few caves.
Then I drew the War Map. The northern part of the forest abuts the Emerald Hills. I drew a tactical map showing the Elven watchtowers, their range of influence, and where they knew certain monster species lived.
Started a few lists. One of the Clan Elders and one of 10 NPCs that I generated from my skull that would serve as random folk in town or People of Importance that I could pin a badge onto when I needed to.
I started to think about economy and what clans filled what economic roles, and I got the basics down, but nothing that would stand up to scrutiny.
I almost drew the map of the village where the Council Meeting was going to be held, but I didn’t, and I’m glad. It would have served no purpose beyond my own gratification. Being time-poor sucks.
Finally I did a list of 10 random events. Something that would affect the forest and the surroundings only – nothing Global. All extreme events. Nothing really mundane. “Go big”, I thought.
It was going to be an interesting campaign. I knew that for sure.