From the DM’s Chair: Filling in the blanks and ways to start your campaign

So, you’ve got your setting map all laid out and an overall idea of the big picture of your campaign. We’re not ready to start our campaign yet, however. Drawing the map is only half the battle for making a setting, it still needs filling. After all, a world isn’t just a map with a few interesting landmarks, it’s people, places and problems, all of which are present for the players entertainment and engagement.

Welcome to from the DM’s chair, I’m Shadowonthewall and, today, we’ll be looking at how to put the finishing touches on your D&D campaign setting. First thing’s first, a quick recap. Last session I talked about world building and provided an example of the map for my campaign setting: Dorvine and the distant continent of Ustegard. Here’s the map I created for the setting below, and in this next section, I’m going to try and give some advice on how to develop the specifics of your campaign setting.

Dorvine Map
The island of Dorvine and the continent of Ustegard. This week, I’ll be going into how I fleshed out each location and developed senses of culture for the world at large.

The World is our Oyster: Where to start

Obviously, a campaign must begin somewhere. The main advantage of being the DM is that you can decide where that is. The main reason I’m bringing up the starting point of your campaign up first is because it’s most likely the first part of your setting you’ll need to develop first. If you’re starting the campaign in a village, town or any other community, it’s a good idea to have a vague idea of the place’s structure (what races live there, what’s the town’s purpose and any important Non-Player Characters in the area). As a rule of thumb, having at least four NPCs planned for your starting area should help, giving your players a few basic NPCs to interact with, not counting any quest-givers: the person in charge, the captain of the local guard or local enforcer, an innkeep and a shopkeep. A basic map of the settlement wouldn’t go amiss either, but as long as you have a strong idea of place related to your location, that should prove good enough.

Since we’re considering developing our starting location for our campaign, it’s also a good idea to consider where that is and why. The obvious reason for this is different areas can be used to evoke different tones (a dark wood at night is clearly the start of a Gothic campaign, whilst starting in the private chamber of a Lord implies a more political theme) but there’s also another feature to focus as well. Not only does your setting set a tone for the campaign, it also sets a tone for your players and their actions.

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Tattooine: actually a good place to start your D&D campaign. Image taken from StarWars.com.

For an example, let’s compare the starting points of Lord of the Rings and Star Wars: A New Hope as if they were campaign settings. If we take Frodo and Luke as our prime examples of a player character, you can see that their starting points, The Shire and Tatoonie, both function as a default home state: a starting area that’s a safe haven from the world. However, the way the two settings are portrayed deliberately affect our expectations as an audience and that of the characters. Frodo is reluctant to leave the lush green and pleasant faces of the Shire but is pulled out onto the main road by the threat of a marauding band of black riders and a warning from a powerful wizard. As an audience, we’re afraid for him and understand the great weight he carries on his shoulder. Luke, on the other hand, is restless to escape from the bleak sandpit that is Tatoonie and is just waiting for his moment. The death of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are less a motivation and more an excuse to leave his old life behind and go on the adventure he’s always been seeking. As an audience, we’re saddened by their deaths, but understand Luke’s finally living the way he’s wanted and any sorrow soon gives way to excitement for Luke’s new adventure.

Those examples show how the way a starting area is portrayed can instil different values of ideas in your characters, your audience or, in this case, your players. Luke’s departure from the moisture farm to Mos Eisley is the classic fantasy adventure of a young man questing for excitement and is the perfect example of how to get a group of players ready for a dungeon delving campaign. In contrast, Frodo fleeing his home from the black riders comes off as nearly horror-esque in style, implying darker forces at work in the world and creating a campaign that starts as a frantic game of cat and mouse.

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In contrast to Star Wars, the tone of LotR’s setting starts bleak with the use of the Nazgûl as ominous riders in black. Image taken from Concerning the Lord of the Rings.

In short, when picking where to begin your campaign, I suggest two main things: think about where best to start the story you want to tell but also about how your players will engage with that story and your setting. Starting in an abandoned mining town might imply a more gritty horror style game, but some players might consider the mine ripe for pillaging for loot and wander straight into a troll’s waiting maw.

Pause on the setting: How to start a campaign?

Admittedly, deciding where to start a campaign also relies on how you’re planning to start it and starting something new is always difficult. Luckily, bountiful examples exist within fiction and roleplaying history in general and I’ve complied a basic list of set-ups for your campaign to work with if you’re having trouble thinking of your own.

The Prisoner: The Elder Scrolls approach

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Out of the Abyss, one of the better adventure modules for 5e. Image from the D&Dwizards.com.

What’s a more interesting introduction to your world than making your players prisoners? It establishes a reason for your players to be involved on their quest, why they’d be working together but it also gives you a chance to set up the world around through the prison itself: why are people imprisoned? Who’s in the prison with them? What does that say about the world the players live in? The adventure module Out of the Abyss starts this way, with the players being prisoners of the Drow, Dark Elves beneath the earth. Being a prisoner is a great way to bring players together but also easily applied to any setting: are your players imprisoned in your setting’s capital or perhaps on a border fortress straddling the mountains? This easy application is probably the reason why it’s the preferred introduction method for the Elder Scrolls games. Plus, there are multiple ways the campaign can start out from this set-up: either the players plot a jail break, find themselves broken out by some sudden cataclysm or get ordered to go on secret missions Suicide Squad style. The only downside is that you need to have a reason for your players to be arrested and some players might feel a little down about the notion of starting their first adventure in a prison.

Looking for Work: The Action Movie approach

We’ve all probably seen a movie like this. The party are summoned to an important NPC’s parlour or said important NPC comes to see them and offers them a job that seems too good to be true. It’s basic but it’s a fair reason why the players are willing to go wherever your introduction point is. Indiana Jones is usually called into action by one of his contacts this way, and the second example of this is a common thing in 90’s movies (bonus points if the party agree to do this as ‘one last job’ that boils over into something more). The adventure modules Tomb of Annihilation and Storm King’s Thunder both start this way, though in Storm King things are initially weaker because there’s no direct NPC handing out the first quest. This approach can reasonably get the players anywhere you need them to go, and the buy in for the players is simple: you want to play? Just accept the quest. I’ve started a few campaigns like this myself, and it’s honestly one of the easier things to pull off, considering most players are willing to go along as soon as you start telling them how much the job is worth, whether or not you ever plan to have them receive the payment.

Thrown Together by Circumstance: the Heroic origin

This is the hardest of the basic campaign set-ups to pull off. It usually involves having a reason for each player to be in your first area and trying to find a way to pull their separate strands of story together into a cohesive whole. Danger and conflict are a good start, but there’s no immediate way to thrust everyone together and nothing to really guarantee they’ll stick together unless the party are playing heroic characters who want to work together with others. This is sort of how the adventure module Horde of the Dragon Queen starts but even then, it’s a situation that relies on your players being paragons of virtue.

Already together: Let’s skip the Prologue

Or, if you don’t want to really have a beginning and just want to cut to the action, you can always just say the party already know each other, have grouped together and just so happen to be passing through your starting point when events are kicking off. There’s not much tying the party into the campaign at the start of this, but it works well enough and has a very ‘get up and go’ nature to its construction, good for players who don’t want to fuss with prologues and just start playing.

The Tavern: The Classic Approach

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The tavern: the classic opener for a D&D campaign. Image taken from robreyart on blogspot.

Four adventurers walk into a bar, the set-up for your campaign now appears to be the set-up for a joke. Admittedly, ‘starting in a tavern’ has become such a staple of D&D that people now automatically brand this approach as ‘bad’. However, I come from a school of thought that being generic is not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a reason why tavern openers have been popular in D&D for years: because it’s a good set-up. You can plunge the players into a social space, allowing them to not only role-play but also giving them the perfect taster of your world. Starting in a tavern also allows you to present the grand state of the world or the local community on a much smaller scale to your players. In this one starting point, you have a place where a series of interesting NPCs from across the local area, maybe even the world, can talk, not just to the PCs, but to each other. Want to foreshadow that great evil you’ve been thinking of using as a big bad? Have one villager lament about dark clouds to the North and shadow of a tower growing on the horizon. Want to establish racial tensions? Have the Dwarf call out to a Dragonborn who just stepped into the tavern: ‘Don’t serve scaleys here’. It’s a great way to showcase your setting’s lore and other people in a way your players can easily interact and engage with. This approach is the one used within the Tales from the Yawning Portal module, with the bartender serving as the quest-giver for the party with numerous tables of interesting patrons to keep your players interested.

Despite its strengths, however, there are some key flaws to this approach. Primarily for new players, being forced into a roleplay situation can make people feel uncomfortable and, for those playing more neutral characters, making conversation and bringing the party together might be like pulling teeth. Secondly, it’s also worth noting that the location of taverns usually means that player characters have travelled through the world to reach there, meaning that this is another example of having the players needing to be pulled together by fate, such as a random goblin raid or a bar-brawl gone wrong. Despite these flaws, I enjoy the tavern approach and even have a variant to suggest on the idea.

On a Boat: The Tavern of the Sea

For my Dorvine campaign, I decided I was going to start my campaign with my players being on a boat to a new world. Boats, in my opinion, are an even better starting point for a campaign than a tavern, whilst also sharing a tavern’s benefits. Starting with a boat, you remove the idea that the players have no common goal as, although they might not know each other, if they’re on the same boat, they’re all heading to the same place in theory. Roleplaying is also a lot easier to get started, especially since on a boat, there’s no real way to escape from situations when they occur, encouraging your players to engage with them before it spills out into their local area. Admittedly, it’s not the perfect approach to starting a campaign but one key advantage I also had in mind was that it was much easier way to ease the players into my setting. Having them leaving the continent and heading for the island of Dorvine, the boat would serve as an introductory segment to the campaign, allowing the group to become accustomed to the setting before actually setting foot in the first location. Considering the nature of boats, this also means that as a DM, you can decide where the main destination of the vessel is, easily guiding your players to the starting point you’ve planned for them, whilst not making them feel discouraged or that you’re manipulating their actions and curbing their freedom.

The Big Picture: The State of the World

Considering I was planning to start my campaign on a boat, I had to structure my organisation differently than a normal campaign. Usually, I would be able to focus on smaller scales conflicts, or at least, a great struggle that didn’t affect the greater world to apply to the area of Dorvine where the campaign was starting. Since the players were entering the campaign coming from a different part of the world to Dorvine, however, I thought it was important to establish the bigger picture of what was happening in the world around them, especially on the continent I had left behind . In my opinion, plotting the state of a world like this can be more easily handled if it’s split into levels of scope.

The Big Picture: First Scope, the Past

Recent History is important and usually defines a generation’s way of thinking, so it’s important to consider about what the most recent historical event in your world was. If you’re struggling on initial ideas, the Dungeon Master’s Guide actually includes tables on ‘World-Shaking Events’ which could help a lot in this. For the Dorvine campaign, to go with the feel of the darkest timeline, I decided to include the fall of an Empire. Around fifty years ago, the Torvali Empire ruled all of Ustegard and Dorvine but dissolved almost overnight into a chaos. Events like this help define a lot about your world’s history but also how it influences the present. All of the cities on the continent were once part of the Empire but after its fall, now function as free city states, governing themselves and largely believing in isolationism. Dorvine, meanwhile, is the last vestige of the Empire, still being ruled by the family of a diplomat from the Empire and currently struggling to find its own cultural identity, trapped between old spiritualism and Imperial values.

The Big Picture: Second Scope, Recent World Events

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An example of the Eladrin, Elves pertaining to the seasons, who I decided to utilise as a main antagonistic force in my setting. Image taken from D&D Beyond.

Whilst past events help develop the history of your world and make it feel more real, more current events help spur the players into action and encourage them to explore the world more. For my campaign, I decided a series of wars would be the best recent event to keep the player’s attention, and also explain why they would be taking a boat away from the continent in the first place. Establishing conflicts the players can engage with is always a good idea and for me, conflicts usually arise in the form of different fantasy races waging war, partly because it’s easy to find monster stats that way, but also because it helps develop the idea of a cultural identity. For my setting, the races I decided to focus upon were the Orcs (despite being a main-stay of Fantasy, I’ve never really done something focusing on Orcs) and the new Eladrin from Mordenkainen’s Tome Of Foes. Multiple antagonistic factions are something I enjoy using because as a viewer, I find it enjoyable to watch them interact in other media. In the case of the D&D campaign, however, multiple villain factions also make the world feel more developed and in the case of the tone I was going for in Dorvine, warring factions easily helped establish the idea of a darker timeline than the standard. So, I established that the players would be leaving the port of Marida, escaping from the approaching tribes of Orcs laying siege to the area and the Eladrin Empire of the North that was expanding without rest. To further establish an overwhelming sense of apocalyptic nature, I even included a vague explanation for the Orcs and Eladrins actions: the Orcs were fleeing westward from a ‘rot’ and the Eladrin Empire has supposedly lost access to the Feywild and thus, the Eladrin are trying to expand their borders to gain more living space for their people. These three looming threats (the Eladrin, Orcs and the mysterious ‘Rot’) were the recent world events that helped characterise the world as a broken one.

The Big Picture: Third Scope, Smaller Scale Conflicts

Now, we’re getting onto factors that are more immediate to players. The larger conflicts and world events help define the world the campaign is set in but, chances are, as a Dungeon Master, there’s little we can do with these big set-pieces when our players are still relatively low levelled. It’s the smaller conflicts that will pull them in and as the scale shrinks from past events to present ones that shake the world, it’s the more intimate lower scale conflicts that will pull your players firmly into your setting and allow them to engage with it.

As a culture, I wanted Dorvine to be a world of duality and conflict to further hammer home how bad things have become in the setting the players inhabit. The main conflict within Dorvine is between the old spiritualism of the island and its newer imperial sensibilities. It was to this end that I invented two factions: the Imperial remnant led by the young Queen Lilaria Coale and the revolutionary rebels led by Maxen Willowbriar. This conflict was inspired by the Civil War in Skyrim after a recent replay, but to add an extra level, I decided to have the conflict forming only when the party arrive: whisperings of war on the horizon and the knowledge that Maxen Willowbriar is trying to raise support against the crown.

Another immediate conflict I established was inspired by the witch hunting plotline in the Witcher 3. Blaming the fall of the Torvali Empire on the Arcane machinations of the Emperor’s inner circle, Paladin orders have since risen to the forefront, prime of which is the Order of the Black Rose, an organisation dedicated to wiping evil and the arcane from the face of the world. As the leader of the Church is in support of the Queen, a squad of the Black Rose is based in the capital city of Dorvine, Solace, as well as the upper city of Urest. Considering I was planning on starting the party in Solace, the paladins could be used to create tension for any arcane spellcasters in the party, as well as those of a less desirable descent that the standard humans.

With the background conflict on Dorvine established, I dived in deeper to explore the city of Solace, where the party would first be stationed, and decided to build a primary tension based on rich and poor and law and chaos. The nobility of the city lived in ivory towers, the poor worked in factories, and anyone who didn’t fit between these two would most likely find themselves joining or being accosted by the local thieves guild, who were attempting to take over. Guilds are important in settings as they establish more mythos and the feel of a wider real working world. For this thieves guild, I decided on the name ‘Clear Skies’ and utilised the theme of birds to create a structured hierarchy of small scale thieves ruled at the top by a man who went by the code-name ‘Albatross’. I find that stylistic choices like this, themed guilds, usually make the events involving them stick out more in the player’s minds, even if they do tiptoe comic-book styling on occasion.

The Devil in the Details: How to create the illusion of culture

Now, with all that read, I realise documenting my own thought processes doesn’t perhaps answer the main point of this blog post: I’m creating and developing a setting, how do I fill it out? I’ve given examples of how I’ve done it without specifically saying how I approach it and I think the best piece of advice I can give on cultivating your own setting is twofold. One: details make everything. Knowing who runs what shop, who lives on what street, helps the world feel alive. It can be very hard to plan all of this in advice as it’s essentially asking you to map out every person in a fictional world. However, I encourage you to simply make things up in the moment if needed. Just ensure the world as its own inherent logic and that all the details line up and not only will the world feel alive, but it’ll be engaging to your players. My second piece of advice is even more simple: if you don’t know how to make an interesting culture, take inspiration from the world around you. Each of the locations in this campaign setting is clearly inspired by another. Marida is based on Spanish passion, Krol Domu a Nordic warrior culture and Dorvine itself is a mash-up of British history all in one, fusing an eastern front more akin to something out of a Victorian novel with a more rustic western backdrop reminiscent of medieval history and even before hand. Inspiration is everywhere and taking from bits and bobs is a great way to flesh out your setting. Ultimately, everyone thinks differently and probably has a different process to this, but I hope the hints and tips of my approaches to developing culture help improve your campaign setting, if you ever decide to lose yourself in the world of D&D.

Right, that feels like enough on setting for the moment. I’ve given you tips on developing the outline of a setting and now, you’ve hopefully given you some more advice on how to flesh out that setting, create culture and how to engage it with your players. However, all this plotting and planning is not what D&D is about. You now have a stage to work on, you’ve yet to include your actors and see if they can enjoy themselves. Likewise, as much as I enjoy ranting about world-building exercises and my own approaches to it, this series is mainly about running D&D, my own campaign and hopefully giving you some lessons that I’ve had to learn the hard way. And D&D is not just a setting. It’s also your players and how they engage with it.

That’s going to be it from this segment of From the DM’s Chair. Join me next time as we finally dip our toes into actually playing D&D, what a session zero is and why I think they’re important to any campaign and an introduction to my lovely party members who, without them, I would have no campaign to run.

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