It’s been a long time since I’ve DMed an ongoing campaign. Since my last one ended a few years ago, the longest game that I’ve run is a 5-session play through of Lost Mine of Phandelver, the D&D 5e Starter Set adventure.
The campaigns that I have run in the past generally have started with me putting together a lot of setting details. For example, I have a huge world map and more than 100 pages of notes for my homebrew world of Malune. While that’s partly because I just enjoy world-building as a hobby, it’s also because that’s the model for settings established by published D&D books.
For the next campaign that I run, I plan to do things differently. I’m not going to build a detailed setting or even come up with a starting adventure in advance. Instead, I’m planning to come up with the barebones of a setting and then use a character creation session as an opportunity to get the players to help create the setting.
For the barebones of the setting, I’m going to restrict myself to ten statements about the setting. These will be single sentences that establish a starting point for the setting but leave a lot of open space for things to go different directions based on the players. Anything not included in the ten statements, including lore from the game’s published material, is subject to change.
As a basic structure, I’m thinking of having 4 scopes of statements (cosmological, continental, regional, and local) with 2 statements per scope except for local which gets 4 statements. The focus on local details is meant to put the focus on things that are relevant early in a campaign while the broader scopes give a bigger picture of the world and can be expanded as the campaign progresses to higher levels.
Ten Truths about Krakenport
- During the Dawn War, the gods and their followers defeated and either imprisoned or slayed all of the primordials.
- The cosmos is divided into the Astral Sea filled with the domains of the gods and the Elemental Chaos where the primordials once ruled.
- The continent of Avornea stretches from the warm waters of the Azure Gulf in the south to the frozen Far North and from the Western Wilderness to the Sea of Storms in the east.
- Three centuries ago, the nation of Kalgir conquered much of Avornea with an army of bound demons, but after a century of dark rule, it was defeated by an alliance of several nations.
- The Storm Coast has been conquered by larger nations from the west, including Kalgir and Capasia, but has once again reverted to small kingdoms, city-states, and free cantons.
- The region is known for its harshness with powerful storms pounding against the rocky coast and cold winter winds carried down from the north.
- Before the rise of Kalgir, the sea caves known as the Kraken’s Maw served as a hideout for sea raiders that plagued the coastal settlements to the south.
- As the demonic armies of Kalgir marched east, refugees found shelter with the raiders and a city slowly grew above the Kraken’s Maw.
- Krakenport is now a free and thriving port city with a reputation for a lax legal code that makes it popular with smugglers and other unsavory scoundrels.
- The mountains known as the Sea Wall have shielded Krakenport from invasion and offered mineral riches, but the peaks and cave systems below them are home to dangerous monsters.
Once the ten truths are written as a starting point for the setting, it’s the players’ turn to add more detail to the world through character creation. Player’s should understand that anything not listed in the ten truths is open to change. They can use and build on other lore from published books if they want, but they can also throw it out and take things in a new direction.
The first step of the character creation session is having each player share the core concept for their character. Here, I’ll also borrow the idea of a One Unique Thing from 13th Age and have each player come up with something that is truly unique about their character. Players should also pick their races and classes at this point.
Background & Class Details
Once everyone has settled on a core concept, players should move on to choosing their backgrounds and making any big choices needed by their classes, such as which deity a cleric worships or what type of pact a warlock has entered. The players should create and share the setting details that they need rather than asking the DM for lists of options for the setting. For example, a player shouldn’t ask “Which deities can grant the sun domain?”, instead they should just decide on a name and go with it.
Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws
Ideals, bonds, and flaws are another great opportunity for players to create new setting details. As players fill out that part of their character, they should feel free to create religions, places, historical events, and people that their characters are motivated by or connected to. In addition to the standard bond to a person or organization outside the party, each player should also come up with how their character is linked to at least two other characters.
Once the players have those details ready, the DM should ask a few questions to each player to help fill out details on elements introduced during character creation, and then start coming up with potential adventure hooks for the first session of play.