As I’ve been thinking about finding people to run a new D&D game with, I started thinking, what sort of scope do I want for my D&D game? Do I want to do another epic story like the first season of Dungeons and Flagons where […]
What I was getting at with last weeks articles about Dungeons and Dragons monsters was the idea of creating an overarching campaign that makes sense that isn’t just a bunch of random monsters thrown together and how you can turn that into a story that […]
So you want to get started as a Dungeon Master? You’ve come to the right place!
For the purposes of this post, I’m going to make a couple of assumptions:
- You’ve already gotten the books
- You’ve already roped some friends into playing with you
So, with those assumptions out of the way, let’s hop into the first topic:
Where in the World are you going to start?
I capitalized “world” for a reason — this part is going to be about world-building. It is one of the bigger things that eats into a DM’s time, and how you set up your world will make a big difference in your game. There are countries, continents, oceans, cities, and all sorts of other things that you need to think about when creating a world. You then follow that up with who is ruling this country, who is the mayor in that town, who runs the bar, what are the guards’ names, and so on. Next, you’ll need to come up with about 100k different Non-Player Characters (NPCs). Which sounds miserable.
Or instead of starting from scratch, you could spend a bunch of time reading D&D books to learn the history and lore of the land, and once you have all the backstory down, you could lay your own story on top of it — for example, you could develop your own version of existing worlds like the Forgotten Realms, Eberron, or Ravenloft. But again, this seems like a ton of work if you are just picking it up on the fly.
So what is one to do?
I’ve had luck with two different ways of world-building. I’ve used the Forgotten Realms as a base and placed my own city and my own little area on the Sword Coast and just ran a game that was completely unconnected to the rest of the D&D world but that was set in a place that already existed. I didn’t have to come up with what the land looked like; I could see it on a pre-made map. I was able to build out my own city creating a handful of different NPCs that the PCs (Player Characters) interacted with. This worked quite well, especially for a short game that ran for a handful of sessions. The players were in a limited area, and they were given solid direction within that area. If that game had been meant to go on any longer than just a few sessions, I would have needed to start studying up on the greater Sword Coast area.
The other way that I’ve done it (and the way I’m currently doing it for the world in Dungeons & Flagons) is to create a small chunk of the world as I go. I had only created the town of Green Sparrow in any depth, and knew some about the Lieth Barony. East Tadalia and Barbuga were both made up on the fly. Once I knew that the characters wanted to and were going to go to Barbuga, I sat down and came up with the seven pirate princes, and fleshed them out and drew a map of the island so I knew what that looked like. But even with this method, I still allowed Wizards of the Coast to do some of my work for me. For example, Chauntea is an actual D&D deity of nature, so I just piggy-backed off of that at some points.
- Start by picking an area where the players are going to start the game.
- Figure out what towns are nearby
- Figure out any important taverns/buildings in the town
- Figure out any important people in the town
- Make it a living world
Item #1: Keep this a small area. I’m going to suggest setting it on a coast; this makes it easy to create a reason for all the players to be together. Also surround it with wilderness on the other sides. You don’t have to plan wilderness so much; you just need to know the type of terrain for it, and now you have a large play area to start with. You can draw a map of this area if you want, but it won’t always be needed. However, it might be necessary as you get to larger places, just for your own reference, even if the players never see it.
Item #2: Keep your main town smaller-sized. Even if the characters are from the big city, it is very possible for them to be traveling up and down the coast. And with a smaller city, you don’t need to plan out that large an area all at once.
Item #3: Most coastal towns are going to have a number of basic things going on. Docks of some sort, inn/taverns, and a handful of shops, for example. Decide what the important places are, and just focus on developing those, or allow your players to create them. The Stacked Fishwench, our tavern in Dungeons & Flagons, was clearly made up on the fly, and I didn’t even have to give it a name myself. But the name of the tavern clearly implies a bunch about the place, so I just ran with it.
Item #4: Again, keep this simple. Create the captain of the town guard, a mayor, the major players in the town, and not many others, to keep the number lower — both to make them easier to keep track of, and so you don’t have to do so many voices. For example, you can have a standard NPC bartender who has a single voice across multiple towns; you don’t have to be a person of a million different voices like Matthew Mercer to run an entertaining game.
Item #5: Even though you might have only built up a small section of the world, spend time making it a living world. Know how your PCs might affect what is going on in the world, for better or worse. Know that if they leave one thing alone, something else might happen elsewhere. Give the players real choices to make in your world, and as the world grows, have events happen that your PCs have only heard hints about; that makes the story even more immersive for the players.
Most importantly, make the world yours. If you want to spend the time up front to build a huge world in which you know the inns and outs of every town, you can do that. Just know that whatever you come up with, the important thing is to have fun doing it, and to give the players an ability to make a difference in the world.
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