I think it is pretty safe to say if you are reading this blog or involved with role-playing games in any way, you have at least a passing familiarity with Dungeons & Dragons. Wizards of the Coast isn’t playing around when they make claims about having the most popular roleplaying game in the world. D&D 5E being the most recent incarnation of the game, it makes sense that we see a lot online about it. In fact, D&D has helped bring RPGs into popular culture with references spread throughout Netflix stream series, primetime TV, on-air radio waves, and across the blog and podsphere.
While both Mark and I have talked about D&D numerous times on this blog, via social channels, and more, this post isn’t specific to Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition—or any edition. Rather, this post is about the thought process I find myself going through as I prepare to run a new game, a game using the D&D 5E rules.
Why 5e Dungeons & Dragons?
I mentioned how the game is—like it or not—widely popular. As such, it has some of the widest support of any RPG out there. There are modules, rules, and all sorts of accessories—both official and not—readily available. Beyond that, it’s also based on relatively simple and basic concepts. I haven’t played a D&D game past the low teen levels in decades; I posed a challenge to myself to see if I can fix that.
How and Where to Start
There are articles, videos, and even books dedicated to setting up and running a campaign for a fantasy role-playing game. I am not here to reinvent the wheel or regurgitate a bunch of things you already know. Instead, this is more about my personal journey. Maybe it’ll be of use to you. Maybe you will see what I have here and have your own suggestions.
First, a lot of reading. I mentioned previously how one of the benefits of role-playing games is how they help us by forcing us to read a lot. Hey, if you don’t enjoy the reading, you might be looking for a different hobby.
I was pretty excited when 5E first came out. I was not a fan of 4th edition for my own reasons. It’s not that it was a bad game. It merely wasn’t a game for me. Meanwhile, when Fifth Edition came out, it hit on a number of my favorite pieces of D&D. I was thinking I had found a game that would serve me well for some time. However, there were scheduling issues and the little bit of time I did get to play ended up being spent with people who would—more or less—rather play any RPG other than Dungeons & Dragons. That’s not necessarily a dig at the game, although I heard more than a few criticisms during this time. Instead, it goes back to the fact that not all games are for all people.
I’ve had some time. I’ve had some ideas. And now, I am in a position where I can dedicate some time to this game. Since then, a lot of new stuff has come out for the game. I am personally looking forward to getting to try out some of the stuff I now find myself reading about. But, just how much has been added? What has changed or been clarified? So, yeah. Lots of reading. Hell, I just decided to check out D&D Beyond for the first time today since its failed launch years ago during the days of 3x.
Like with any halfway decent research project, though, it helps to have a good idea of where you’re headed. Sure, you want to stay open to all sorts of possibilities, but you should have a goal. I do, indeed, have a goal here. What neat stuff is out there that I am going to want to see in my game? Just as important: what cool things are out there that my players are going to want to see in their game?
World-Driven or Character-Driven Creation
Generally speaking, there are two main schools of thought when it comes to a fantasy RPG campaign creation. Top down creation has the GM (let’s face it, DM) create the world from a large scope. The draw maps, come up with the history of the world, define the pantheon, how magic works, and all the other things that can go into setting. It’s the way a lot of fantasy authors work and it can work very well for creating a Dungeons & Dragons campaign.
The second method to campaign creation is the opposite. Start small, with the characters and a small town or part of the map and work everything out from there. The world is largely defined by what then players want for their characters. The benefite to this second method include:
- Make the Dungeon Master’s job a lot easier
- Less upfront work
- More chance for early player input, which means better player buy-in
- Quicker time to launch
One of the downsides with this second method is not knowing everything that is going to get involved. I have seen many a DM eat their own PHB trying to reconcile inconsistencies and contradictions. Hey, good note taking and having an understanding group can easily solve these problems.
What am I doing? Well, with doing so much reading, making this blog post, etc., if you were to guess, what would you guess? Top down? You’d be right, if that was your guess. Mostly.
I am going through a bunch of my old game and story notes. I am reading and listening to some really cool things. I am building a world top down from the ground up. At the same time, I am including some of my prospective players in these early stages. I am bouncing ideas off them. I am getting their feedback and hearing their ideas early on.
Drawing Inspiration for the Game
Nearing forty years of age, I have read a lot of books, played a lot of games and spent way too much time watching TV and movies. I’d be a fool if I didn’t readily admit whatever I come up with is going to be at least partially informed and shaped by those other sources. Here are some of the things that are coming to mind early on.
The Night Angel Trilogy: Different cultures throughout the world with their own mythologies, magics, etc. From all the sources I have to draw upon, this series did the best in showing me how best to distinguish between cultures in an RPG. So many other books I have read, shows I have watched, etc. have some universal history. Philosophies may vary a bit, but the different races and cultures are pretty much the same. Especially consider how the different cultures have magic that works in very different ways. Even one of my favorite series—Dragonlance—has magic pretty much working the same for everyone. I like how The Night Angel series presents different options, different descriptions. I want to be sure to try and work this in. Will it mean different rules or is it all just based on descriptive trappings?
Thundarr, the Barbarian: A post-apocalyptic world with a band of diverse adventurers. There was great action and while it was all relatively derivative, it kept the attention of my young, over-active imagination. I want to make sure I can do the same for my world. There should be things that are both familiar and strange. And, it should always avoid boring them. Will I fall on the post-apocalyptic trope of many fantasy RPGs and stories? I don’t think so, but maybe.
Dragonlance: I mentioned this previously. I certainly didn’t read all the books in the series or even dig all of the different Ages. But, Chronicles and Legends had some great stories. It was a mixture of fallen and never risen adventurers who travelled the world and became rulers and folk heroes. That zero to hero campaign is something I want to be able to provide for my players. Considering this took place as part of a role-playing game run by authors, there was definitely a bunch of hand waving and house rules. I’m all for that to help tell a better story. This story is for the players, though, not for the paperback mass market.
Comic Book Heroes: Oh, there are far too many to name, but there are some things that run across them that I want to be sure to consider. These heroes are much more than the average mortal—even if they are mere mortals, they push themselves to be something beyond that. They alternate by being heroes of the people and popular scapegoat. They are vibrant, colorful, identifiable and each have their own schtick. I want my players to be able to be those kinds of differentiating heroes. At the same time, the stories told through comics are often the same stories we have told since before the dawn of time. They carry universal truths and I want to be able to do that and not just have a series of loosely knit dungeon crawls or big bad of the week.
Hercules (2014): This movie starring Dwayne Johnson may not have been the Hollywood blockbuster its producers wanted or the epic masterpiece some people foolishly expected, but it was a fun movie. It was great to see the characters each have the own schticks and have legends about them that were larger than they actually were while daring action scenes showcased the ridiculousness of the epic adventurers.
There are many more, but hopefully that’s enough to get me started. Like I said, it’s important to have goals early on. And, what are those goals?
- A meaningful journey from zero to hero for the PCs
- Vibrant and colorful characters from different cultures just as different
- A mixture of familiar and unfamiliar, keeping players engrossed
- Great tales of adventure rather than a monster of the week style dungeon crawl level grind
Where to Next for my D&D 5e Campaign?
As you can see, I have a number of notes to compile, more reading, more watching and listening. One key thing I will have to consider is what rules to allow and invent for the game. There are some key items I am looking for and I have my own ideas as well as seen some great examples out there. I am considering how much will end up in one of my many notebooks, if I will use Pinterest, Google Docs, One Note, or even a program like Realm Works, which Mark mentioned in his post regarding AD&D Second Edition. If you’ve got something you think I should consider throwing into the mix, feel free to let me know.