Kicking off a Campaign

I probably just gave my regular players a heart attack with the title of this post, but I’m referring to the general ways and means of starting new campaigns. A new campaign doesn’t necessarily have to be in a new campaign world; many’s the time I’ve started a new campaign in Greyhawk, for example.

The question for the GM becomes one of information flow. Just how much knowledge should the players have about their starting locale? Especially in a sandbox style campaign, starting the players with zero or next-to-no information means they are going to be flailing about blindly, with no way to make an informed choice about where to go first. This can be frustrating to both players and the GM; the players because they feel completely helpless, and the GM because they players are more than likely not going to randomly stumble on the neat things he has carefully designed for them to encounter.

Starting the players with little or no information can be difficult to justify in-game as well. If the player characters have grown up in a particular village, why don’t they know the layout? The prominent NPCs? The fact that there’s a ruined tower just over the ridge to the north? The name of the king?

In the original DMG, Gary Gygax gave some excellent advice on the subject:

As background you inform them (the players) 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 in the 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 setlement means that you need do only minimal work describing the place and its inhabitants. — A&D Dungeon Masters Guide, p. 87

This setup neatly solves the problem of the player characters not knowing much detail about their starting point; since they come from a “nearby place” they could very well not know anything about the actual starting village or town.

The question still remains of just how much information should be given, and how. Do you, as the game master, prepare a handout, complete with rumors, maps, and lists of deities from which to choose? Or do you more severely limit the information available to them, dictating that “there was only one temple in the village you grew up in, and so Thor’s your deity”?

I don’t think that generosity with information concerning some of the broader brush-strokes of the campaign is a bad thing. As a matter of fact, I think that the players can find themselves more invested in a setting about which they have some knowledge, rather than the whole being a gray and misty cipher beyond the 10-mile-radius around their immediate starting locale. Does having the World of Greyhawk maps hanging on your wall ruin the mystique of having a campaign set in the Flanaess? If not, then how does handing a continent-scale map of your homebrew campaign do so? I don’t ask this with any specific answer in mind, but invite speculation and discussion in the comments.

Personally, I find the campaign really gets going after the third or fourth session, when the players have a good sense of who’s who, what a few of the plots are that are happening in the campaign (at least in their little corner of it), and so forth. I’m wondering if there’s a way to jump to that point without simply handing the players a list of rumors and NPCs, which feels less than right to me somehow.

Written by 

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.

9 thoughts on “Kicking off a Campaign

  1. One thing I'm considering whenever I start a new face-to-face campaign is using Dawn of Worlds ( to create the setting. It's a game where multiple players create the setting, so, at least on a large scale, the players would know the basics of the setting. This would make it so you don't have to worry about explaining things to your players, and they'll have the basic knowledge that their characters would probably have, without having to make their characters "new to the area."

  2. The whole lack of information could work well, depending on how you play it. I have an idea of starting a game where the PCs are summoned via a monster summoning spell to protect a wizard, and when he teleports away the PCs discover they are stuck wherever they are, and part of the initial campaign is all bout finding out where they are and how to get home.

  3. I usually allow such information to be made up as we go along.

    If the players start as strangers, they usually keep much of their personal background to themselves anyway. They become allied in some goal or quest somehow, i.e. hired, attacked while together, etc.

    I have had players who have wanted to know background data for their characters, and others who didn't. Sometimes when the players make stuff up on the spot I'll incorporate it. It helps them meld with their newfound world.

    I generally give players what they ask for. If they don't ask, it allows me to introduce such information on the local happenings through NPCs. A city guard may recognize a players armor as coming from a certain area – an area where his home village was taken over by a local lord or baron when the village couldn't pay its taxes and two of the guard's brothers were killed!

    It's better to let the area's history write itself sometimes.

  4. I provide a basic continental (or at least macro-regional) map to my starting players. I also make various local maps available as and when it's appropriate. I like to work with my players to help build backgrounds if they're into that sort of thing, and I'm always happy to provide a little information about regions, major landmarks (the city of Vull is known for it's master engineers and swordsmiths, etc) and just generally basic 'stuff' like the name of the president/kind/emperor/whatever.

    Usually fits onto two sides of a sheet of paper. Light enough to not be 'study' and deep enough to give people the foundation to hook their own story into.

  5. Imagine a group of novice characters being shown the Greyhawk map in their master's study at the end of their apprenticeship. The master points at the map and says, "You are here." He waves his hand over the whole map, "Where would you like to go to ply your trades? I'll tell you what I know."

  6. I was just pondering the same question with the start of my new campaign next year.

    My campaign is set in the World of Greyhawk, in the Viscounty of Verbobonc in the common year of 576. They find themselves starting in the small Hamlet of Kleinmere, a few days travel by foot from the City of Verbobonc.
    Players would be limited to the knowledge of the hamlet, folk and the surrounds. They would be instructed/ taught by their respective, families, village elders or masters. The characters would find that they would only be exposed to St. Cuthbert, Iuz and the Old Faith. As the players are exposed to more of the world so does there knowledge grow. They will have to seek out new masters to train them further, bigger villages that will be overwhelming. I believe by doing this it helps bring back the mystery of the world, as things will be different in a way. The other thing that I intend to do is make far more use of knowledge checks both in and out of combat. By Identifying an opponent’s fighting style you may gain a bonus or even receive a penalty when engaged in combat due to the different techniques used. Same goes for spell casters somatic, verbal and material components will vary across the world. By identifying clothing, language, gestures etc. players will build up their knowledge of how things work. I will be also using the system for Notoriety (Reputation), modified by “Meldon” as players need to realise that actions have consequences, both good and bad. The church, the land and moral code are all there to guide the players.

    To make all this more believable, I spend a single session with each of my players introducing them to the hamlet that they are in, there friends and possible enemies. After everyone has had there solo session I will then have the first group session with each person bringing their own bit of knowing of the local and surrounds to the table.

    If anyone is interested in hearing more, mail me and I will keep you in the loop and add you to the campaign blog as it goes live from next year.

  7. I think at least part of the reason that this bit of advice exists is not to keep any information from the players, but to keep them from becoming overly attached to a terribly fragile 1st level PC.

  8. I want to give PCs the opportunity to create their own backgrounds, within reason. Unless I am doing something off-the-beaten-path (I started one campaign with the PCs shipwrecked), I then prefer to work with each PC one-on-one before session 1. This helps me formulate a plausible reason for the PCs to be adventuring together.

    The main DM in our group went so far as to draft elaborate backstories for each PC, with multiple NPCs and so forth. Many of these went unread and the sheer volume of pre-campaign information was overwhelming and therefore underused.

    That said, there's nothing wrong with EGG's 'you're all adventuring together' DM fiat approach either. It certainly cuts to the chase.

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