Tonight, as I write these words, I’m going to be running the first session of Seven Kingdoms: Seowyn’s Crossing, the Dungeons & Dragons campaign that I’ve been writing since October of 2007. When I started writing it, 4th Edition D&D had recently been announced, and tiny tidbits were coming out of the offices of Wizards of the Coast. I felt I had accumulated enough of these tidbits to begin working on my next D&D campaign, although I had no idea how long it would be before we actually started playing.
This campaign represents my first original foray into a 4E game as the Dungeon Master. I’ve played in two 4E games, and I’ve done a lot of DMing of pre-written modules, but I’ve only written one very short scenario for the purposes of playing with my nephew.
As I was pondering what angle I wanted to take in this article, it struck me that first sessions of D&D campaigns are a bit like first dates, an observation only possible by a geek, I imagine. I thought I would share what I’ve found successful in both areas over the years, especially since I’m known for my long term commitments…my last D&D game lasted 9 years and came to a satisfying conclusion, and my relationship with my husband is 14 years and going strong, so I must be doing something right!
Take It Easy at First
This has been refuted by a number of experts in the RPG field recently, but I find that I like a beginning to my story that has a smallness to it. If the first chunk of The Lord of the Rings launched into fights with Black Riders and perilous chases, that would set a specific tone of urgency right away. Instead, it begins with a party and a small farewell between friends. Some RPG wisdom now states that you should leap into something big right away to hook your players and get the action started, and for some kind of stories, that works well. In my current campaign, however, I want the characters to feel a strong attachment to the town of Seowyn’s Crossing, so I want to start there and build a love of this community within the players. That way, when it’s threatened later on, as the Shire is in Lord of the Rings, the players will really care.
For my current campaign, I’m starting small, literally, with the players playing their characters as children and telling the story of how they first met. This will give me a chance to establish the community of Seowyn’s Crossing – its people, its concerns, its rural nature. This also gives the players a nice starting point to look back on…a firm foundation for their characters. If I begin with a demon gate and monsters pouring out of it, it might be memorable, but how do I go up from there? Any time there are demons, the players will say, “More demons…well, we’ve been fighting them since day one, so no biggie.”
In dating, it’s good to start small as well. If your first date were dinner at a nice restaurant, then that’s a nice solid foundation and a nice memory to look back on. If your first date were a trip to an exotic country, to use an extreme example, it’d be memorable, but how could you go up from there? And what if you don’t hit it off? Then you’re stuck with this person you don’t like until you get home, and what might be nice memories are going to stay tainted with this negative experience.
I also think that a big flashy beginning, whether in a game or a date, is a sign that you’re probably trying too hard. Have confidence, whether in your story or yourself, that a small beginning will be enough to get someone interested and to want to know more…to see how things grow from there.
Not Too Much Exposition
There is nothing, and I mean NOTHING, worse than listening to your Dungeon Master drone on about the fascinating background of the world they’ve created. Your campaign world may be intricately detailed, fully mapped, and full of fascinating legends, but your players don’t need to know every detail right from the start.
Before I even had players, I created a wiki on the site ObsidianPortal.com, and, as I asked people to join the game, I directed them to it. If my players want to know world details, they can find them there. Otherwise, I speak to each player individually, tell them a few tidbits they’d know that they can later relate to the other players in game (or not), and mostly leave the exposition to occur naturally over the course of the game.
Tonight, as we start, I’ll be playing a PowerPoint presentation I made that gives the history of the area in a compact form. This same intro is the front page of the ObsidianPortal.com page, and it’s important background, but it’s still just a quick little capsule. I’ll also use the device of a storyteller to feed in some mythic bits about the game, but that’ll come much later in the evening, and only if the players seem interested.
In dating, it’s important to get to know each other, and finding out a little something about each other on the first date only makes sense. If you’re not into the other person and who they are, why subject yourself to a second date? But try not to tell your life story in one go, and try to make whatever you are talking about relevant. Don’t trot out your amusing anecdote about the terrible service you had at a different restaurant when your date is talking about their hobbies. And make sure that what you are telling is appropriate. Save the charming yet embarrassing stories for a date or two down the line.
Offer Choices, But Have Some in Mind Yourself
With this campaign, I’m experimenting with a game style that I’m referring to as “Sandbox with Benefits.” I’m going to offer lots of choices to my players, and I’m going to try and make it seem that the campaign’s story falls fully on them. I am, however, a storyteller at heart, so I’m going to cheat a little. I have an overarching story in mind, and I intend to seed elements of it into the adventures they choose to pursue.
For example, if I want the players to seek the legendary Sword of Awesome, I will make sure they get info about its whereabouts, no matter what they choose to do. If they choose to take a job as caravan guards, then the bandits they defeat will have a note from a mysterious wizard telling them to seek the Sword of Awesome in the Mountains of Tallness. If they choose instead to explore the Crypt of the Lizard King, ancient murals on the wall will show a warrior wielding the Sword of Awesome and reveal that his crypt is in the Mountains of Tallness. The players can still choose to ignore the Sword of Awesome, but at least I’ve made them aware of it, and they may return to that adventure at a later time, in which case I’ll bump up the nastiness of the monsters and traps.
It’s a good idea to offer choices on where to go for a first date, but it’s also good to have specific choices to offer and to have one you prefer if your date defers to you. If you’re going out to eat, and you can offer to go out for pizza, to go get Chinese, or to go get some ribs, then your date has some fun choices on where to go. If they say, “Where would you like to go?” it’s best not to have to reply with “I dunno. Where do you wanna go?” That gets very old, very fast.
Leave ‘Em Wanting More
By the end of my first session, I intend to foreshadow some cool adventures that the PCs will have when they’re grown-up. I intend to offer them some tantalizing mysteries that they’re not yet quite able to fathom. I intend to show them there’s a wide world beyond their doorsteps, and I hope to get the first inklings about what kinds of adventures they want, so I can make choices available that will be interesting to them.
By the end of your first date, you’ll have done well if you’re already talking about what to do on a second date. Hopefully you have more date ideas and more anecdotes to share. You might also have a better idea of what your date enjoys, so you can customize to that when offering choices for a second date destination.
What About You?
Have you had particularly good experiences on a first date? Do you have a pearl of advice to share? Share it! Comment and help your fellow geeks find their own special person to have a second date…and many dates thereafter.