Once you have a world, you need to build a campaign, this will give you an idea on where to start.
1) Start With A World, Either A Published Campaign World Or One You Have Created For Yourself
There are several products online from which to choose from, from many reputable publishers. There are also a countless number of homebrew worlds, so the precedent for custom world creation is more than evident. Once you have chosen a world then you need to determine what you are going to do with its history. You can either follow it or not, change it or not, or combine a couple of other worlds histories into one until you get a history you like. Or just start from scratch. The advantage of using a pre-created world’s history is that you can use the various supplements that are published for that world.
The advantage of using your own history is that no one will know it like you will and you can write as much or as little as you want. You can also take a set of nice maps and then create a totally custom history that has nothing to do with what the world’s publishers had planned. That is fine; that is what makes it your own world. For example, the Pathfinder world of Golarion has a crashed spaceship and gunpowder was discovered. I know quite a few DMs who hate to allow gunslingers and a few who ignore the spaceship references because they don’t want science fiction in their D&D game. So they ignore those parts of Golarion’s history and just don’t have them in their world. However, they can use other parts of the published system and the supplements written for the game and the world of Golarion.
Gary Gygax was all for people creating their own material. He gave the magic items in the Dungeon Master’s Guide as possible items that could be customized, changed, or improved as the DM wishes. When it came to artifacts he wrote in blank lines and a list of suggested powers and lists of drawbacks for each artifact, several lists in fact. One of the first rules in the DMG was “All rules herein are optional.” That means you can do whatever you and your players want in campaign creation. The important line here is “you AND your players.” Make sure your game is interesting for your players and something that they will want to play in. Gary Gygax published the little book set, then the red and blue book set, then 1st edition and then a couple of years later he published the World of Greyhawk, which was his campaign world. He wanted people to create their own worlds and not just use stuff that he created. He was reluctant to lock people into his ideas. The World of Greyhawk had a beautiful color map with a hex grid, but only a pamphlet for the history section. Some nations got only a paragraph of history. The idea was to present a starting point and have you build upon it and create your own stuff. If you bought his dungeons and modules then you would get more of his campaign’s history, but if you made up your own stuff that was perfectly fine.
2) Good Places To Start
You could start with a discussion from the DM, a poll, a list of ideas, or a gab session where you as a group discuss ideas that you would like to see in a game. The first three require that the DM comes up with the ideas, while the final suggestion allows the group to come up with the idea, although it has the ability to grow out of the DM’s hands.
Another consideration for planning your game is its future. I have created over half a dozen different worlds and used several published worlds in my game. Each game was its own entity and I seldom worried about what type of game would take place after the current game. My first campaign world was just the Geomorphic maps from Avalon Hill tank games. I know a DM who has run the same set of three game worlds for over 30 years. He takes what players have created in the past and builds upon it. When players make changes in his worlds they are reflected in the next game. He has a long complex history because of this. This is fine for him, but bad for his friends and his wife who played in multiple games and were told that they were using out of character knowledge when they referred to knowledge a past character had. That penalized his regular players. Now if he had some items that were part of the historical record and some items that were secret then he wouldn’t have penalized his players as much. He could have used some characters as NPC heroes and heroines in his game. He could have let them use some of the common history those characters knew instead of requiring everyone to start at ground zero.
D&D is designed to be run over however long the DM and the rest of the group can sustain it, usually years. There are some groups that have been playing for a decade or longer and there are new groups starting each day and groups falling apart each day. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking only for the next session, the next game, or the next module. Start planning for the future, whatever that may be. Yes, almost always some of these plans will go unused, but you can always recycle the data later. Always keep this thought in mind: “what next?” What will happen after this session, after this module is done, after this game is done, and in my next game? The job of a DM is to think outside of the box and to think ahead of the players. This is the chief reason why it is so hard to be a good DM and why so many of us love the job.
3) Session Zero
Assuming you have an idea for your game the next step is to plan session zero. Session Zero is that session where you sit down and talk with your players, inform them of what game you plan on running, and find out what characters they are going to play. This is important to do, it can be done in person or done over Skype, over the phone, or over email. The important thing to do is to build a campaign the party will be interested in and have a crew of players and characters that fit. For example, if you have a freewheeling pirate adventure where the players skate the edge of the law and on the run, then it would be foolish to expect a paladin to star in such a game. Not impossible, just unusually hard on the paladin. By the same token, a last-ditch defense against a horde of orcs with the party manning and organizing the defenses would be a good game for a paladin to join.
Founded in 1888m, the National Geographic Society organized and sponsored expeditions to explore the darkest corners of the world. When a party was planned to explore Egypt, an arctic explorer was not brought along, nor was a big game hunter. Instead it was an Egyptologist, someone who spoke the local languages, and someone who spoke the former languages of Egypt who were included. D&D was designed for a party of core characters; a rogue, a fighter, an arcane magic caster and a divine magic caster who can heal. The further you move away from this “standard party” the harder it is going to be on your group. Now the DM can make adjustments like removing traps or allowing wands of cure light wounds to fall into the party’s hands early, but these are forced constraints. A game is better when you don’t have to force the issue, especially when dealing with the basics like the “standard party.” Just like a National Geographic Society party is going to include the proper mix of people, your game should include the proper mix of characters.
Now you could hold a Hogwarts Academy adventure where the party all are fledgling wizards who are trying to get an education, but this would require a custom game and a way for the party to heal themselves or a way for them to bypass traps. All standard Adventure Paths and Modules are written for a party of 4 who are of the “standard party.” If you don’t want to run a “standard party,” or the players don’t want to form a “standard party” then you can’t use standard Adventure Paths or Modules. This has been true since the times where there were only six-character classes and it is still true today. You can do it, but it will be harder on the party if you do and as DM you need to make adjustments.
I was once in a game with three players. We had just split the group and a power gamer had left. When we reformed the new party all of us took on hybrid characters. I was a magus, so I had to handle front line fighting as well as arcane use. The shaman had to handle his pet as well as cure wounds and the Investigator took other skills rather than Disable Device. One problem was this DM felt we had to design our characters on our own, with no input from each other. We honored that rule and we suffered for it. That game didn’t go well and for the first seven levels my character died at least once a level, and I didn’t die the most, nor do I recall the amount of times I came close to death as it was too many times to recount (practically every fight). If I had been a fighter class then I would have had more hit points, worn better armor and would have handled the front line better. It took the DM a while to adjust to the party mix and our inherent handicaps by not being a party of core characters. Now there are a lot of people who will argue about this and say that they can build a party out of any characters. They are ignoring one of the core concepts of the game; the “standard party.” You ignore the standard party and the requirement for it at your party’s peril. I recommend that you hold a Session Zero and you let the players discuss what they are going to play and try to form a “standard party.”
A way to make sure you have the “standard party” is to include more players or to include an NPC who picks up the missing role. Just be sure that if you use an NPC, they don’t steal the show from the players. I have seen too many DMs who have major NPCs who act to do amazing things and steal the shine from the party. This is a case of the DMs roleplaying with themselves; I call it DM Masturbation. If you have to include an NPC in the group then make sure that they have some clear flaw, like an unsound tactical mind, or a tragic flaw which could be their undoing. Or maybe they are reluctant. It is up to the party to recognize the flaw in this NPC and to make sure that it is not their own undoing. Make the flaw one that is playable and not fatal. A rogue who sneezes every 10 minutes is going to have a hard time sneaking around, where a rogue who is absentminded may have to be reminded now and then what they are doing or trying to do. The first flaw is very taxing to play and may make the character unplayable, the second character will make sure the players follow the absent minded one around and keep prodding their memory. If you don’t have an NPC with a flaw, then make him a coward or make him hesitant or give him some feature that will cause the party to not trust him. In short, make them fallible. You don’t want them to outshine the players.
4) Starting The Game
Once you have your party, and once you have your Session Zero, then you can start your game. Most DMs like to find or plan a module or an Adventure Path before they talk to their players about starting a game. What you might consider is a range of Adventure Paths or modules that can be strung into a game; then you can give your players a choice of what they want to play. Of course, this means having to prepare or read a bunch of modules, but one way is to use rotating DMs and when a DM is half-way through their game have the next DM discuss what they want to do for their next game. You can hold a gab session or vote from a list of planned items, then the DM who is to run next can take the rest of their friend’s turn at DM to write up or prepare their campaign. This not only helps to prevent DM burnout, but it gives the next DM the ability to prepare before they have to run.
5) What Happens Next?
So now you have created your world, or found one, and you have a world history, either custom or cookie cutter. You have talked with your players about what the party composition should be, you have picked a campaign you want to run, you are ready to start your campaign. So, what do you do next?
You need to inform your players if you plan on using canned history, or a custom history. If you have a custom history, then you should give the players the highlights. In a fantasy setting the education of the people is variable from primitive, to basic, to advanced often depending on your social class they belonged to. The nobility had more education than peasants, so how much background you chose to give out is going to vary with the player, their social class, and frankly their attention span. Few people are going to want to sit through a long lecture on the obscure vintage of a glass bottle or a country that they are never going to visit. So, be careful about how much text you dump on your players. But even peasants knew the name of the pope and their king and queen, they also knew the names of their enemies be they nations or different faiths. When Guttenburg invented the movable type press he printed a smash best seller: the bible. Coming off of that bestseller he published the work of an obscure Catholic Monk who had problems with the way the Church was being run: a guy named Martin Luther. He included a woodcut picture of Martin Luther on the inside cover, and his face became the most famous face in Europe, better known than any king or queen. And believe me, it steamed those nobles.
The invention of the movable type press and publishing books increased the education level of all of Europe. So, one big question you have to answer in your game is how common are books and are they printed, or do they have to be copied by hand. If there are books and they are available, then a lot of people are going to read them and that will improve the education level of the populace. One nice method available to us nowadays is creating a website. Google Sites allows you to create free websites of almost any length. There are other organizations on the web that allow you to create your own website, like Earthlink, or you can take information from the web and refer to it in your own website. The important thing to do here is to make sure you are abiding by the Open Gaming License, where you are not using copyrighted material. If you do use copyrighted work, then make sure to get permission from the original authors and give them credit for their work. This is also true for any illustrations you use. There is no harm in copying work, but there is big harm in plagiarism, that is theft of work and claiming that it is your own. In my book, that is theft of property and lying to your players.
6) Handling Player Knowledge Vs. Character Knowledge
All players will start with some knowledge and have some character knowledge, both of which are rarely the same. Keeping that knowledge straight is important and not easy. Don’t burden your players with too much knowledge and then not expect them to use it. Just like you wouldn’t want to run a module that someone else has already played in or run, you don’t want to include too much knowledge that is restricted information. Also, once a character gains knowledge then it is hard to restrict that knowledge. You can tell players not to use restricted knowledge all you want, but it is hard for them to do so. One common tactic of TV lawyers is to ask a question of a witness that they know will be objected to. The judge will then instruct the jury to disregard the testimony. The problem is the jury never disregards the testimony. In the old days of 1st edition there were only three Monster Manuals and most DMs and players had read them from cover to cover several times. That is why they would ask you to show them a picture of the monster. If you showed one from the Monster Manual page, then often they would recognize it and could quote its stats. You only had to say werewolf and the players would know its armor class, that you needed silver weapons to damage one, and its Hit Dice. With Pathfinder there are half a dozen Bestiaries, so it is harder to memorize all the monsters, but a werewolf still requires silver weapons to damage them properly. This is now reflected in the Knowledge Skills. This is how you can limit a player’s knowledge to a character’s knowledge. You can also use Knowledge (History), Knowledge (Local) and Knowledge (Nobility) to limit how much your players know about the world in general, and in specific. This is good if you are using a shared world or a canned world created by someone else. You don’t mind if you players know more than their characters, but you don’t want their characters to know more than their DM. Also part of the challenge of meeting a monster for the first time is learning what it can and cannot do and what does and does not work on it. In previous editions of D&D that joy was lost once you read the monster manual or once you had played against that monster. Now with Knowledge checks your players can have that joy again and again.
7) Now How Does All This Relate With Each Other?
Well the character class that the players choose, as well as their traits or their background history may determine their social class which would then determine their basic knowledge. What they know would factor into what happens and what the players can count on in the game. The availability of books also determines the education level of the populace. What they know will shape their reaction to how the game goes. For example, most people in the hobby know about the Adventure Path Skull and Shackles and that it is a pirate game. This is common knowledge and even if your players haven’t read the module, they are probably going to know this as a minimum. The game starts with the DM shanghaiing the party onto a pirate ship. You can roleplay that out, or you can do it with a cut scene. A cut scene is a scene in a video game where character agency is taken away. Part of the story is acted out on screen and the player is told some important things and then given control over their character again. You can do a cut scene where you “convince” the party to join your pirate crew, assuming that they will join to go on with the module, if not then you are wasting your time. If you held Session Zero then you would know that the party will go on with the mission so you can save some roleplaying time by using a cut scene to introduce the party to their new ship and crew. Use cut scenes rarely, as you do not want to too often take away player agency or their ability to react.
8) What To Tell Your Players?
Most modules and Adventure Paths come out with a Player’s Handout. If you are doing a custom campaign, then you should make one for the players. Distribute this handout prior to the game and include things like well-known history for the area, rumors for the area, important people in the area, important locations in the area and what the basic adventure idea is. I don’t like to encourage DMs to lie to their party, but there is no rule against misdirection. Some of the rumors could be false, some of the places could not factor in the adventure, some of the people might only factor vaguely in the module and some of the things you tell the players could be commonly known things that are actual factual errors. In Vampire the Masquerade it is well known, among the public, that salt not garlic is what vampires are allergic to. In fact, most vampires aren’t allergic to garlic in the game. Part of the Masquerade is spreading around false information about vampires and even making them fictitious to most people so that if they see a real vampire, they are not likely to believe it, at least long enough for the vampire to escape or to kill the person. Say that there are vampires in your game who have spread around common rumors that vampires are allergic to salt or werewolves who pass around rumors that werefolk are allergic to cold iron not to silver. A simple knowledge check can be used to recover from these falsehoods, but that is something very few first level characters are going to have enough knowledge to know. This could be true in that the Kessel Run is a hard run for even a fast ship to make in Star Wars, or that bottle caps are used as currency in the Fallout universe. Any game could have secret information in it that is known or hidden or not known. If you have secrets, then as soon as they are revealed you had better determine a way for them to be uncovered in other games. Maybe it is a Knowledge (Nature) DC 15 check to know that Fay are allergic to cold iron, maybe it is a knowledge 10, maybe the fay have planted a rumor that they are allergic to silver and it is actually a Knowledge (Nature) DC 20 check to know the truth. That way if you keep using the same campaign world then when it comes time for a new set of adventures to explore the world you will know what they need to do to not act on “out of character information.”
Handouts are good for a game, as they increase player immersion and make the game feel more real to the players. If you are creating a handout then include some pictures with it that relate to the topic at hand. In the early days of D&D the only images that related directly to the topic were those in the monster manual. Often the rulebooks and modules used stock images or images from people who didn’t know the game or the situation in the game. That changed with Third Edition and since then the editors have tried to make sure the images relate to the topic you are reading. This increases immersion and understanding. I have collected a lot of images from Facebook and Deviantart.com so when I plan on showing a monster’s image in the future, I can use one of my images I found instead of the canned one from the Bestiary. That way the players won’t be sure it is monster X with Z and W abilities. Another way to avoid that is to reskin a monster; use one image for another monster’s set of stats. It is best to use a custom image this way. The players will have no way of knowing what you are using or what its real stats are so you can juggle around a few abilities or weaknesses. Now it is harder to do this with a classic monster like a dragon or a medusa, but how many know what a flumph can do, or can picture one? They are lesser known monsters published in the Fiend Folio and were hardly used because they were designed poorly.
Now what if you take a panther man and create a werecat (not a weretiger, there is one of those already) who can take the forms of a house cat up to that of a mountain lion. They get the mountain lion’s attacks or the normal cat’s attacks or the attacks of a small cat (as per the animal companion) if in bobcat form. Now you have a totally new were-creature and no one is exactly sure what it is since you are simply using a cat’s stats and a were-creature’s ability to shape shift and their damage resistance to silver. You can have a village that is suffering attacks from some nasty animal and no one would suspect the housecat lounging on the windowsill. The easiest monsters to make up are demons since they are chaotic and there is an endless array of shapes that they can be formed into. The most common demon is a mashup creature like a Marmolith; a cross between a giant snake, Kali (the Hindi goddess of destruction) and a human female. So, you can escape players from knowing too much by using nonstandard images for monsters, nonstandard monsters, or reskinning a monster. Making up a new monster from scratch is hard to do and even the experts make mistakes now and then. I saw a monster in a module that appears in another module in a toned-down version, because the first appearance of that monster it has a 75% chance of taking out at least one party member in one encounter and that encounter was a major one and couldn’t be avoided. Also, there was no way in the module to bring back the dead at the level the party should be at.
9) Ideas Are Powerful Things And You Need To Include How The Ideas Are Going To Work In Your Game And In Your Future Games
World building is a tremendous task. If you build a world with a secret underground demonic organization that the players find out about, then the next time you run your world the same set of players will expect to find that same organization active again. If you don’t want to throw out your past history, make sure that you have rules for how the players can uncover that information for their characters. For example, the demonic conspiracy may be secret and only known to a few churches and cults, so a character has to have joined a cult or church and gotten past the first circle of knowledge to learn about the demonic cult. This is a simple safety factor. In some games those organizations can be clear and easy to join, in others hidden and hard to find. It all depends on what you want to do for your game. This would let you avoid the traps my DM friend who used his same campaign world over and over created for his players. His wife knew far more than any of us, but he penalized her when she tried to use that knowledge and he didn’t have any rules by which her other characters could get that knowledge, or to rule that they didn’t have it. He just assumed that everyone started out with no knowledge at all and if his wife showed any knowledge, he would accuse her of using out of character knowledge. He could have gotten around that by giving his wife’s character a flaw and access to extra knowledge for that flaw. Then she could even serve as our guide in certain regions and she could be a font of knowledge and an inside track for the players to learn more about his game and thus get deeper immersion and generate more interest. He had a lot of secrets in his campaign worlds, but once we found out about them it was hard to not use that knowledge with our other characters. A few times we learned the same secrets over and over, it took some of the fun out of learning them in the first place. It also took the joy out when we came across his favorite NPC time and time again. It got to the point where I, at least, was sick of them. He had a large world, but we kept coming back to the same areas for his adventures. So, if you create a world or use a canned one then make sure it is large enough that other games can exist in it without falling over each other. One advantage of using Golarion, the Pathfinder world, is that the history was written by a team of writers and the world is vast so it can contain a lot. There is a lot published about the world, but there is a lot of space in between the areas where things can happen and you can make minor changes, like forgoing gunpowder, to make it your own world. Don’t be afraid to do that with any canned world you run.
In summary, start with a world, custom or canned; find what game your party wants to play in and build it; build a party as close to the “standard party” as possible and hold Session Zero; publish a set of your rule variants for the players to learn, use and know; inform your players of what they need to know for background information for the campaign; determine what knowledge is what and how hard it is to obtain, learn, and utilize.
Daniel Joseph Mello is active under that name on the Facebook under the fans of d20prfsr.com and Pathfinder Gamemasters Groups. Feel free to login to Facebook, on of these groups and drop him line. He has been involved in D&D since 1981 and by the 5th game he was the DM. He has gamed in the Army, in college, and at conventions, including AggieCon and NovaCon. He has written tournament level modules for gaming conventions and been writing about D&D on Facebook for over 3 years. He is also a budding fantasy writer.
Picture Reference: Red Hand of Doom: Elsir Vale Map (Player) by Antariuk
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