Hi everyone – Ian here. As part of my work here, I’ll be posting odds and ends like this – general advice, cool ideas, project updates and the like.
So, when starting a campaign, most GMs will pick a quick dungeon off the internet to drop in as their players first intro to the world. We’ve all done it – I’m particularly fond of the One Page Dungeon entries to get something fun and unique.
But the first game of your campaign can really set the expected tone of the rest of the game. Imagine you signed on for a game of intrigue, politics and mercantile adventures – yet your first game involves delving into a dungeon to save the world from a Cthuloid menace. It creates a gulf between the game you want, and the game you have.
I decided to set my current game in Vornheim, which meant I needed to emphasise a few things: the urban setting, the weird-fantasy touches, and the city’s guilds and customs.
So, when discussing the players background, some were given ins with various Guilds within the city – the Thief was a member of the Honest Craftsman Guild (aka the Thieves Guild), the Fighter worked for several Mercenary and Bodyguard’s Guilds, and the Cleric had a few friends from his Church in town.
The Weird Fantasy feel was brought through in a few ways – the Wood Elf player was given the background of Vornheim’s Wild Elves (fur-wearing winter rangers, ruled by Frost Giants, sharpened teeth and no taboo against cannibalism), and the players were introduced to some of Vornheim’s weirder aspects as background details (seeing nobles walking Slow Pets, encountering NPCs from the weirder parts of the globe).
Now all I needed was a module that fit the tone I was looking for. Luckily, with a few tweaks, The Jeweller That Dealt in Stardust, a Dungeon Crawl Classics module, fit the bill perfectly – without spoiling too much, the players are tasked with doing a little leg-breaking on a Thieves Guild fence who fell behind on his dues. As you might guess, weird shit on an almost cosmic level ensues (one hireling died, the Wizard went crazy, good times all round).
The adventure has multiple routes of attack, several cool encounters, and a whole dollop of Weird. It set the tone for the upcoming adventures (so far, taking down a bandit gang, a giant snail-napping, a quick trip through Death Frost Doom and dealing with the consequences of their excursion) remarkably well. The players now have contacts in the city, know how to abuse the Guild system to their own ends, and have seen first-hand how they deal with their own. The only thing they haven’t run up against (yet) is Vornheim’s ridiculously esoteric legal system, but that’s pretty much assured to be coming soon.
And the same can be said for any game – you have to consider the tone, feel, and content of the game you want to play.
Do you want dark and gritty? Look for hard moral choices, grimy environs, and deadly threats (mostly of the human variety). A high rate of lethality wouldn’t hurt matters either.
Light-hearted, cliché-filled fun? Look for the “classic” D&D starter modules – Keep on The Borderlands, In Search of the Unknown… anything older that can have a layer of loving parody added on top. Or anything Hackmaster, where the modules come pre-parodied!
Over-the-top action? Look for big cinematic set pieces, huge villains, and ridiculously badass characterisation.
Weird Fantasy? You want bizarre magic items, strange environmental factors, unusual mechanical factors (like time-travel, dimension-switching, or some other strange game effect that only lasts for one dungeon), and traps and monsters with long-lasting consequences (such as mutations, permanent injuries, or infectious monsterism).
There are literally thousands of dungeons floating about on the internet for free, and a quick root about your FLGS will no doubt churn up a few more on the cheap. Even if you’re not sure about the content, pick them up – you never know when one little set-piece or encounter would fit perfectly into your next game. A few thematic changes here and there, and you can make an entirely unique experience from a handful of pre-made parts!
So if you’re looking for a good way to kick off a campaign – do a little research and make sure your first adventure sets up what you want from your game. And if it doesn’t, tear it apart and stitch it back together until it does.
- What did the first first dungeon of your last/current game say about your campaign?
- Creating and new game and you’d like help setting the campaigns tone?
Head over to our r/m20 to discuss!