Gary Gygax on Kicking off a Campaign

“The milieu for initial adventures should be kept to a size commensurate with the needs of campaign participants — your available time as compared with the demands of the players. This will typically result in your giving them a brief background, placing them in a settlement, and stating that they should prepare themselves to find and explore the dungeon/ruin they know is nearby. As background you inform them that they are from some nearby place where they were apprentices learning their respective professions, that they met by chance in an inn or tavern and resolved to journey together to seek their fortunes int he dangerous environment, and that, beyond the knowledge common to the area (speech, alignments, races, and the like), they know nothing of the world. Placing these new participants in a small settlement means that you need do only minimal work describing the place and its inhabitants. Likewise, as players characters are inexperienced, a single dungeon or ruins map will suffice to begin play.” – E. Gary Gygax, Dungeon Masters Guide, pp. 86-87

Finding this passage in the DMG was like a lightning bolt for me, back in my early days as a DM. It’s sort of tucked away in the “flyover country” between combat and the magic item descriptions, but I poured over those pages endlessly. In fact, it’s still my standard “go to” scenario for starting a new campaign, and one that I plan to be using in a week and a half when my new Erseta campaign begins. Good stuff.

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Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

5 thoughts on “Gary Gygax on Kicking off a Campaign

  1. Sagely advice from the master. Very good. Thank you for the reminder! 🙂

    I often start my campaigns in a small village on the outskirts of nowhere with the PCs as members of a single family to foster group unity. In fact I go one step further and have often started out the would-be adventurers sitting at breakfast with their parents discussing the chores of the day. One such adventure began when the party decided to play hooky and go rabbit snaring at the old McFearson farm which was abandonment due to a recent fire and the loss of Pamela McFearson, after which old man McFearson moved away (mysteriously) to Wheatsdale. The adventure began at the barn, when on for 12 weeks, and ended back home, with two relieved and angry parents, and a lot of chores to do. I like my campaigns to have a story feel to them, and that's one way I've contrived to make that happen.

  2. @VBWyrde: That is so out of the box! Nice way to make the PCs care about their hometown too.

    I started using the Gygax-method originally, but now I tend to get carried away with planning all sorts of background information in hopes that the players get to discover it. Unfortunately, most of it either gets rewritten through the course of adventures or it never sees the light of day. I must love to just torture myself.

  3. You know, this remains really great advice. It really speaks to the “center-outward” campaign design; starting with a few central locations and expanding outward as the campaign dictates.

  4. The problem I have always had with this kind of humble start is with justifying the various races of the party members.

    Having three or five young humans all form the same back water town of humans is a believable starting point. Even if you add in a single demi-human it can work. As long as the party starts out with an overwhelming majority of one race this kind of starting point works wonderfully.

    It starts to break down when you have a human, a dwarf, a halfling, an elf and a gnome all from the same village. Having all these strange and far-flung backgrounds gave rise to the most convenient plot device – "You meet in a tavern…"

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