Starting a New Campaign

Over at Patreon, one of my backers requested a post about starting a new campaign. I’m always happy to take requests from my noble backers, so here’s a step by step of what I do when I’m starting to set up a campaign or longer-form game. To give my bona fides, until 2020 I don’t think I’d ever run what I’d consider a successful campaign game – but the advent of lockdown, and a dive into online gaming, has changed that. I’m currently running an ongoing D&D game, a Star Trek Adventures game (where we are skirting around the Shackleton Expanse campaign), and in the process of pulling together a One Ring game. So – what do I do to start with, when I’m about to launch a campaign?

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

  1. Set the Scope

Firstly, think about how long the campaign is going to last, and agree with your group. I’d strongly recommend splitting a longer campaign into seasons of max 8-12 sessions in order to keep things fresh, and I’d consider starting with even fewer sessions than that. Having a defined end point will stop your campaign from fizzling out, and keep everyone in the game and focussed.

Based on how often your group meets, work out how long real-time this will last for – and make sure you’re up for that. If you meet once a month and want to run a 12-session campaign, that’s a year’s worth of gaming for the group! If you’re weekly, 12 sessions is still 3 months of play. Make sure that you – and your players – are clear about that commitment and happy with it.

Of course, you might have an in-game end in mind – for my D&D campaign, we’re running through Rime of the Frostmaiden; that campaign finishes when they’ve brought the sun back to Icewind Dale and defeated Auril the Frostmaiden. Even with that, I’ve worked out that with 2 sessions at each level of character, this is about 20 sessions. I’d planned a mid-season break after 10, but as it happens we ended up cancelling some sessions anyway, so we’re good to go with the second part of it.

  1. Get the Big Picture

The approach to this stage varies a little depending on whether you’re plotting your own campaign or running something pre-written. In either case, though, you will sketch out the broad picture of how you expect the campaign to play out.

If you’re rolling your own, a great tool to use (taken from Dungeon World) is Fronts. Consider your campaign’s big bad, and sketch out some steps that it might take. Sly Flourish also has a discussion of using this for D&D that streamlines the process a bit.

Having a campaign finale in mind helps – even if your Roll20 presentation isn’t up to much

If you’re using a published adventure, this is when you need to skim read the whole thing. If you’re running something popular (like a D&D campaign) it’s also well worth googling it to see if folks like Sly Flourish or Justin Alexander have notes on how to run it. There will be some of these on here soon as my ‘Deep Dive’ series extends – currently I’ve got Rime of the Frostmaiden Chapter 1, Shadows over Bogenhafen, and the first Vaesen adventure compendium A Wicked Secret to write up. 

Once you’ve got this, sketch out how the sessions might look – for instance, I expected for Rime we’d probably hit one of the Ten-Towns quests per session, along with some additional personal stuff, for the first 6 sessions before hitting Chapter 2 and the more open-ended part of the game. As it happens in a couple of sessions we doubled up adventures, but we were able to mesh some of the scenarios into the PC backstories anyway (for a session-by-session report written by one of my players – and ongoing – check out Fandomlife’s blog here).

Running published campaigns requires slightly different prep to rolling your own

If the start of your campaign is going to branch off and be more of a sandbox, think about how you’ll structure this. I’m a big fan of getting players to decide what they’ll do next time at the end of a session, so I can focus on those bits for the following session. Also, think about how long you’re prepared to let them play in the sandbox – is there an element in your Front, or a lead you can drop, that will force them to leave and stop them wanting to talk to every NPC and find every secret?

  1. Imagine Some Specifics

Once you’ve got your big picture, you could run right away, but now I like to start thinking about specific scenes, encounters, locations, and NPCs that might come up. These can be just sketches to start with, but by having a file ready to note these in before the session zero, you can add to it. For example, in a campaign of Legend of the Five Rings I ran a couple of years ago, I had a few scenes in mind before chargen started – but when one of the PCs had a morbid fear of dogs, of course the bandits were led by a dog-faced demon who took an instant dislike to them. 

With a published adventure, you might want to think about a few NPCs using the 7-3-1 technique if they are likely to recur or be important – I’ve got a wizard lined up for the next couple of sessions who I sketched out a personality for right at the start – or how some encounters might play out in the first few sessions. This isn’t unlike the Bag of Tricks prep technique I’ve used for one-shots – it gives you some go-to scenes and moments that you’ll be able to use later in the campaign.

  1. Session Zero

At this point, you’re ready to get the players involved. My personal agenda for a session zero covers Content / Chargen / Play, but sometimes fitting in all of these can be tricky. If character generation is something that will be dreary to all sit round and do together, get your players to come to the table with something lightly sketched out, and do a bit of in-character bonding in that first session instead. Absolutely would recommend the final part though – getting a bit of play in makes it all worthwhile!

For Content, you want to discuss any safety tools you’ll be using, as well as invite your players to contribute to Lines and Veils and Tone – again, The Gauntlet has an excellent blog on all of this. Alongside this, you want to cover housekeeping – how often you meet, who brings the snacks, what to do if you can’t make it, that sort of thing. For my games I generally have a hard rule that if 3 players and the GM can make it, we play – and we’ll work out a way for the others to catch up later. This does fall down a bit if I can’t make a session, but it gives a bit of insulation against having a run of cancellations.

For the Play bit, just a half-hour encounter is fine – but I’d go with something action-y that involves rolling the dice instead of something roleplay-focussed. Start them around a camp, and have some goblins attack, and then the goblins tell them about the problems in the area. Getting some dice rolled makes the session zero fun, and starts to build momentum for the game proper.

  1. Session-By-Session

Now you can run it! For me, I’m never more than a session ahead of where the party is up to, and I prep in between sessions – I can’t imagine doing it any other way. I’ve blogged before about session prep for campaigns being like for one-shots, but to summarise – I’d recommend making each session a coherent episode if you can, even going so far as to give it a name. 

6 sessions of prep files – complete with corny titles

In my prep, each session gets a Google doc, and follows a fairly similar format, which is either a scene-by-scene breakdown followed by NPC notes, or a Sly Flourish Lazy DM set of notes. I’ve found that for my own prep, I like a defined scene-by-scene breakdown, but for published games that I’m running the Sly Flourish technique works best. I think this helps me to break down components and be a bit more prepared for players going in different directions – whereas with my own games I’m already able to do that without any help.

I’m conscious of my own practice as well (or at least try to be) – and one of the things I’m trying to work on is more memorable NPCs – so at the moment I make sure there’s a few ‘tells’ for each one in my prep notes to make sure I put the effort in to try and do this.

Be sure at the end of each session to get some feedback – either as Stars and Wishes (now rebranded to Spangles and Wangles by my Friday group) or a more informal method, and be prepared to tweak where the campaign is going if needed. I’d also recommend having some ongoing contact with your players, whether about the game or not, between sessions – it helps to keep momentum, which is one of the main things you need to keep a campaign going.

So, step by step campaign planning! I’ll try and get a couple of examples down too, and as always happy to accept Patreon post requests! Let me know in the comments if you’d like to see more.

Combat Clues

Often in one-shots, you see two broad types of trad TTRPG game – an investigation-heavy game, and an action- (or combat-) heavy game. Both have their pros and cons – in an investigation game you often get to interact with the setting a lot, have more roleplaying opportunities with NPCs, and have the satisfaction of solving a puzzle – but pace can slow as the most cautious player tries to leverage as much information as possible before proceeding. Likewise, a combat-heavy game rarely suffers from too little pace – but the breakneck speed can leave players wondering what the purpose was of rolling all those dice.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

A solution to both sides of this problem is to incorporate Combat Clues into your one-shots. They are clues that are discovered during a combat, skill challenge, extended task, or other perilous encounter – and they don’t replace the clues you have in the game, but they add to them.

RDJ’s Sherlock Holmes is the kind of investigative game I like to run – here he’s definitely finding out some combat clues

Why Combat Clues?

For reasons that are probably apparent to regular readers, I’m a fan of the action-heavy one-shot – I cut my teeth at conventions running 13th Age, which has only the lightest suggestion of an out-of-combat game system, and often use the Feng Shui 2 “Three Fights” adventure structure. But the issues suggested above are real problems – often a trail of clues is needed to make the session have narrative sense, and you’re faced with the option of interspersing combat with slower investigative scenes, or just making them find things out straight away. 

I also don’t like the post-fight interrogation scene – it never really plays out satisfactorily, and you end up with your ‘heroic’ PCs threatening the goblin with torture or worse as you frantically work out a reason why they won’t tell the entire plot to them at this point.

The other issue is that combat takes a long time in most games. If you’ve a 3-hour session of 13th Age, you’ll get two, maybe three fights in it – and maybe a montage – but you’re not going to have time for a lengthy roleplaying scene as well. Likewise, if you’ve got a murder mystery with 4 suspects, after the PCs talk to / encounter each one you’ll be struggling for time to get the action in to keep the player at the table who came for that (that’s usually me, by the way) to get it.

They also give fights a reason. I’ve written before about adding a ‘why’ to fights, and how effective this is – it’ll turn your combat-heavy tactical game into an epic exploration and mystery with multiple (well, more than one) layers of plot.

How To Prep Them?

The first step – and fair credit to Sly Flourish’s excellent Lazy DM’s Guide for this – is to dissociate your clues from locations and places. Just write a big list of what the players need to find out in the session. Ones where they need to find them to move the plot along, underline or put in a different colour or something – they’ll definitely find these, so you want to make these easy to find. We’ll call these Plot Clues – they can find these out in locations around the fight, or (if they don’t discover them through roleplay or skill checks) in combat.

Think too about clues that, while not necessary to advance the plot, will make the adventure more survivable, or give the PCs an edge in combat or a similar action scene. For example, the Living Statues are vulnerable to bludgeoning damage and resistant to slashing and piercing, to pick a fairly dull D&D-style one. Or that there are murder holes above the main chamber where goblins lair to drop oil on attackers (that can be avoided by canny PCs). Or that there’s a secret door to the crypt that bypasses the aforementioned statues. 

We’ll call these Boost Clues, and they make ideal combat clues – you can discover them in fights, in action scenes, or along the way as regular clues. Make a note next to each of them how they can be discovered; maybe the statues have dents and depressions on their armour, but no signs of stabbing or slashing wounds; maybe they can notice the ground-floor goblins glancing upwards and cackling as they raise their shields to advance, and that they avoid certain positions in the chamber. Or they may notice something in an earlier fight that benefits them later – the goblin sergeant has a sketch map that shows where the secret door is, or when he runs away he seems to vanish into thin air when he gets to the guard chamber.

Don’t push these – some just won’t work to find out in combat. You need a balance of combat clues and regular clues anyway. But just adding a few will make your combats deeper and more interesting, and add depth to your one-shots without adding extra time (or, conversely, make your investigative scenario more action-packed).

How To Use Them

At the table, armed with my list of clues and a few ideas about how to reveal them, I’ll try to be liberal in throwing them out there. Usually, this will happen at the end of the round – it’s an easy marker of time, and a good way to remember to do it (and, in 13th Age, to advance the Escalation Die – something I also always forget to do).

If Boost Clues aren’t revealed, or aren’t interpreted correctly, it doesn’t matter – they can just hang about in limbo. Plot Clues, though, probably need to be thrown at players if they miss them during combat. Don’t worry about being obvious with these, although allow the players to feel like they discover them due to their actions – that is, it’s better for them to find a map or a note than to have an NPC appear and tell them the answer. It’s always better to do this.

So, Combat Clues – how have you used them in your game? Have they been successful, or do your group prefer a clean break between investigation and action? Let me know in the comments.

The Third Pillar – Fixing Exploration

In this previous post, I talked about the first two “pillars” of D&D – and by association TTRPGs generally – combat and roleplaying. I’ve put a whole post into the third one, exploration, for a simple reason – I don’t think that we do exploration very well. That is, I don’t think TTRPGs do it very well, and I think there’s a lack of clarity about what it actually is.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

I’m going to describe why exploration is tricky, then try to suggest some ways to make it better. 

Why is exploration hard?

  • It’s not explained well. Looking at the Exploration section of the 5e DMG, there’s two pages covering travel time outdoors, tracking (mainly DCs), visibility, noticing other creatures, and a bit about “special travel pace” to calculate daily travel times if your movement rate gets adjusted (by a spell, for instance). Setting to one side that these are all ‘wilderness adventures’ things, there’s not a lot of rules to sit alongside this. These don’t seem to be rules for exploration – more rules for travelling a long way.
  • It’s not supported by rules. Exploring a dungeon involves crawling from room to room and having encounters. Exploring wilderness (once you’ve worked out your special travel pace) involves walking across a map – and maybe encountering monsters or NPCs. Exploring a new city involves walking around talking to NPCs. All of the excitement in these situations comes from the other two pillars – combat or roleplay. Generally (and there are a few notable exceptions), exploration in itself isn’t rules-supported.
  • It’s not clear what it is. The player’s handbook gives some examples about Exploration being “the give and take of the players describing what they want to do, and the Dungeon Master telling them what happens as a result.” (PHB, p8) – this sounds an awful lot like the entire gaming experience – or Apocalypse Worlds’ roleplay as a conversation – do these things not happen during combat or roleplay?
  • It relies on a traditional GM vs. players model of narrative control. This control has since been shifted in so many games, and in so many play cultures, that the “wander around and find out” type of exploration now feels dull and lifeless to many of us. If I’m planning a wilderness expedition, I’m much more likely to use a 13th Age-style montage or ask my players for descriptive details with Paint The Scene questions than I am to feed information myself.
Dark forests should be scary by themselves, without needing combat or roleplaying as well

Categorizing exploration

Word lovers, look away now. I’m going to posit that exploration is too generic a term, so I’m going to create some portmanteau’s to split it into useful categories. I’m going to argue that exploration is primarily about transfer of information – that is, finding stuff out. This can happen in a few ways.

  • Placeploration is background learning. This can be utterly rubbish, learning what happened 200 years ago (the “Adventure Background” bit we all used to skip over before the actual adventure) – or it can be a brilliant piece of versimilitude. It can foreshadow future events, or provide details of what’s going on in the world’s metaplot. Basically, learning anything that isn’t usable this session falls into this category.
    • It takes a few days to cross the forest, and you find the lumber camps abandoned and empty. Make me an Intuition check (succeeds) – looks like they packed up in a hurry, and there are indistinct boots and tracks that look like goblins around here. After you’ve recovered the crown, you could come back here and look into that.
  • Plotsploration is directly relevant secrets and clues for the current plot. By exploring the dungeon, the city or the world you uncover secrets and clues that either bring you closer to the confrontation, or provide an advantage in it. This works best as a drip-drip of information, and can happen during, as well as in between, combat and roleplaying scenes.
    • This room is clearly a prison. There’s chains and manacles on the walls where prisoners must have been held, but no sign of the Prince. Closer inspection of the manacles reveals they’ve been unlocked, and there are a couple of broken lockpicks on the floor nearby – a picklock did this, and not a particularly good one at that.
  • Perilsploration is less about information transfer and more about crossing a barrier. You’ve got to walk across Mirkwood to get to tell the elves, and it’s going to be dangerous. These places should be dangerous even if they didn’t have combat or roleplaying in, so sometimes you might have to create a skill challenge in order to model it. Games that do this well already, saving you this time, are The One Ring, Trophy, 13th Age (montages can be switched to any system, the rules are so straightforward), Ironsworn, Mouse Guard, and a lot of the PBTA games. These are good frameworks to get some placesploration in as well, as your players try to overcome the barrier.
    • The signal tower is three days away, and you’ve only got two. We’ve got a skill check each – probably at DC 15 unless you try something exceptional – to try and get there in time, and you’ll need at least 3 successes to get there in time. What  are you rolling?

Once you’ve got exploration split into these categories, it’s easier to incorporate it into your game – think about each instance you have in your prep, and whether its a barrier, current info, or future info – and spread out your clues appropriately. I’ll pull together some examples in a future post – in the meantime, what other fixes do you have for exploration? Or are you happy with it as it’s presented in TTRPGs generally? Let me know in the comments.

Rime of the Frostmaiden – Prelude One-Shot: Into the Snow

I’m running D&D again. This time, I’ve got hold of a crew of 4 players, a mixture of veterans and newcomers, to run through Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden. I’ll be blogging here about how I’m adapting it, tweaking it, and approaches to it (worth noting if you’re interested that Sly Flourish has already done a great job of this here – I’m not going to duplicate his work!)

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

One of my players is brand new to roleplaying. So, instead of expecting him to dive into character creation and commit to a long campaign, I thought I’d run a one-shot with pregens to set the scene. This is set in Ten Towns, in the same place as the game, foreshadows some of the content, and gets everyone on the same page about tone. It’s an idea I’ve heard Simon Burley, esteemed designer of Golden Heroes, talk about as his default campaign starter (he calls it a “Session Minus One”) and I’ve never done it before. 

It’s first level, to keep everything simple, and is a fairly linear progression, although all of the encounters have a few ways to resolve them. Most of the opposition arrives in waves, which is a good trick for balancing 1st level fights – they can be really swingy when one blow can knock out a player or opponent, so having not everyone attack at once means you can adjust the level of challenge on the fly a bit. It’s balanced for 3 1st level PCs – just add or subtract bandits or undead if you have more or fewer.

It went great – and we’re now one session into the actual campaign! In a couple of months I hope to follow this up with a ‘review’ of the first chapter, Ten Towns, based on actual play. Inspired by Fear of a Black Dragon, I’m trying to limit my reviews to products or adventures I’ve actually played or run, because I think this is most useful – although I appreciate not all reviewers can do this, and if everyone did there wouldn’t be many reviews around! There’s a place for reviews-after-reading as well, they just do different things.

But, I digress. Here is the adventure, presented exactly as my prep notes looked for it – let me know if you use it here or on Twitter @milnermaths !

Into the Snow

A Rime of the Frostmaiden prelude adventure (3 x 1st level PCs)

You live in the far north, beyond the Spine of the World, in the desolate icy realms of Ten-Towns. For the past two years, Icewind Dale has been stuck in an endless winter – every night, strange lights appear, and every night lasts forever as the sun fails to rise. Trapped forever in glacial ice, you eke out a precarious living.

As we open we see you trudge across an open snowfield, a heavily laden sled pulled by two huskies, Gore and Chew. It’s three hours since you set off from Easthaven, one of the more prosperous towns, and you carry on your sled beer, mead, and supplies for Caer Dineval. Caer Dineval has been without beer for two weeks now – you can’t imagine their pain.

  • Describe your character – what are they carrying, how are they walking alongside the sled

But the going has been hard. 9 hours this would normally take, but the snow has come in and you fear a blizzard is coming. As you cross an ice floe, you notice the dogs startle – and the wind threatens to tip your sled over.

  • Ask the PCs what they are doing to prevent the tip. Generally it might be a Survival (Wisdom) check, but they could use other skills as well. At least half (rounded down) need to make it – if they fail, they are overwhelmed when the raiders attack and suffer disadvantage on Initiative checks

Scene 1 – Raiders in the Ice

Out of the snow and ice appear shadows, and the barking of dogs – you are under attack!

There are 4 raiders (bandits), but only 2 attack – and 2 rough huskies (mastiffs). As they fight, each round they see the snow get thicker – and as they flee / are defeated, they notice the sled has been raided.

0 failures – they have grabbed some of the supplies, and a prized bottle of Calishite brandy, charged with delivery to the Caer Dineval castle by your patron

1 failure – as above, but a couple of barrels of mead have gone as well

2 failures – all the supplies are taken

3 failures – one of the huskies has been dragged off as well

As the storm momentarily clears, they can attempt to make sense and give chase.

A Survival (Wisdom) check DC 15 will reveal that the storm is only briefly abated, and they had better follow the tracks now – they lead towards some rough hills which might also offer some shelter

A History or Investigation DC 11 check shows the men to be natives of Icewind Dale, clad in rough winter clothes – accustomed to living in the wilds, but not themselves Rheged Nomads

Scene 2 – The Chwingas

As they follow the tracks, they make their way towards the hills. Strange black crystals occasionally jut from the horizon – DC 15 Arcana to reveal it is Chardalyn, a magical material found only in Icewind Dale.

But the storm gets worse. Ask for DC 10 Survival checks to avoid becoming Exhausted – and then DC 10 Perception to notice a shelter ahead. 

A group of 6-inch-tall animated dolls, about 5 of them, are dancing around a fire

DC 15 Arcana or History to reveal these are Chwingas – tiny fey folk who can be helpful if charmed.

They mimic the characters, then ask them to dance – an appropriate skill check must be made (at DC 12) to receive a charm from each of them.

They award these charms in order: Charm of Vitality Charm of Heroism Charm of Bounty

The PCs can rest while the storm rages around them, and when it passes there are no signs of tracks. The Chwingas, however, can indicate the way their raiders went – up a narrow path to a hill cave

Scene 3 – The Hill Cave

With the mastiffs caged up outside, they can see the tiny cave as they approach – a group Stealth check DC 10 is enough to gain entry. They see the 4 raiders, and a teenaged girl, Varana. She is clad in wispy clothes despite the biting cold and seeks no trouble.

They can try and recapture their stuff, and this is an easy fight – the bandits will only fight to ⅓ of their hp – so 3 hp or less- before surrendering. Then, they tell them the story

Varana was a sacrifice, one of the lottery chosen by the Children of Auril, a cult who seek to end the endless night. She escaped, with her friends, three months ago. They move around a lot, looking for shelter. She clearly has some sort of magical power – as if the frost won’t touch her as she has escaped the Frostmaiden’s clutches – so she protects her friends.

They cover their tracks with the blizzards that follow Varana around… the PCs didn’t leave any tracks here, did they? (At that, they hear the howl of the dogs from outside, and a splash of blood – and the cult death squad attacks)

The cult death squad is an instrument of icy doom – a goliath zombie and a pair of skeletons crash through, while another 4 skeletons attack the following round

As they defeat (or are defeated by) the death squad, they find Varana is gone. They can trudge back to Caer Dineval with their recovered loot.

D&D, My Way

As I’ve blogged before, one of my 2022 gaming plans is to run a ‘proper’ game of D&D – one of the big campaigns, or an Adventurer’s League series. I did this in 2020, managing to get up to about 10th level of the Eberron AL series of adventures, and I’ve got a pretty good idea of what my flavour of D&D would look like if I did it again. 

I’ve played enough different games now to know that D&D, while an excellent game, isn’t always to my tastes. So here are the things I’d do to run D&D, my way.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

Milestone, and Frequent, Leveling

I don’t have time to level up every 4 sessions, nor to track XP. We’ll level up when the game demands it, and it’ll probably be every 2 sessions at the slowest – I could easily be persuaded by 1 level a session. This gives the players new toys to play with quickly, and stops the game being samey in gameplay, which is a risk with D&D. It also makes campaign length manageable – 4-12 session seasons are my normal campaign length these days, with a chance to go back and revisit if needed.

Zoom in, Zoom out

There’ll be liberal use of montages for long journeys and ongoing scenes. PCs schmoozing at an important party? We don’t need to play out every moment of it, we’ll just zoom into the important NPC conversations. There are games that do journeys and travel well – for me, D&D is not one of them – so we’ll cut to the chase. Likewise, state intent and then roleplay a bit, make a roll, is how we’ll do social conflict.

No Shopping, No Encumbrance

Encumbrance is another idea we don’t need, as is lengthy equipment lists. PCs in my D&D have an adventurer’s kit of common useful items for their travels – if they want something that we think is a stretch, they can always make a skill check to see if they’ve got it. Likewise we’ll not spend any time roleplaying encounters with shopkeepers – you do your shopping off-table, and we only zoom in (as above) on the exciting stuff.

Player Ownership of Backgrounds

You’re playing a snow elf? Cool, you get to define as much as you want about snow elves in this world. You used to serve with the Imperial Navy? Cool, tell me about how they recruit new sailors. As long as I can spin it into any plot that I might have for the game, players are free to negotiate their backgrounds as part of their characters at the table.

One note, though – this happens in play. I don’t want anyone showing up with 500 words of backstory for their 1st level character – we can’t collaborate if we do that. It comes out at the table, so any ideas you might have need to be held onto lightly.

Begrudgingly, Grids

I’ve gone on record before to say that grids, maps and minis aren’t necessary, even for games like Pathfinder that pretend they are, but I’ll be using battle maps. I’m running online, so this isn’t really any extra prep, and – having played a sorcerer in a recent Theros run – without them you really lose some of the options for PCs (and monsters) when they hit area-effect attacks and movement around the battlefield.

I’ll not be using dynamic lighting though – I find it both unreasonably fiddly and complex not knowing what the players can see, but also weirdly making it feel a lot more like a mini skirmish game instead of an RPG – without really adding anything. I’ll begrudgingly use Fog of War if it means I can have one map for a big location, but that’s about it.

No Dungeon Expeditions

Yeah, we’ll go to dangerous underground locations, but we’ll be in and out in the day. I don’t think D&D supports the “try and camp in an empty room” jeopardy (at least not in 5th ed – this was a bigger deal in the OSR days) – and it screws with the fight economy. So we’ll just not do it – other games like Torchbearer and Trophy handle this a lot better anyway. This means some dungeons and adventure locations will be mixed up to remove non-essential rooms and encounters – we’ll fill those with…

Montages and Skill Challenges

13th Age-style Montages will let us cut some of the less essential bits out when we zoom out of the adventure, while still adding some epicness to the world. Likewise, some stuff we’ll handle with Skill Challenges, either using the 4e system or one of these here or here. The standard 5e Group Skill Check rules aren’t too bad, either, and they’re often underused, so we’ll have plenty of that.

Alternate Plot and Subplot

Given that we’re levelling every 2 sessions, we’ll aim to alternate between a big metaplot session and a more character-driven side quest once we get going. This won’t always fit in the narrative of the adventure I’m running, but where it does I’ve found it gives a really good balance in game between often quite railroady big plot sessions, and more flexible character-driven sessions. These might still be pretty linear, but they’ll be taken from player requests so will allow us to get more done.

Moar Magic Items

Despite my dislike for equipment tracking, I want to make magic items a bigger deal. I think I often forget about them as rewards, and when I was running the AL campaign some of the rewards were a big stingy, so I want to make them a feature even if they mean I have to adjust some of the opposition to balance them. They’re a key cool bit of D&D that I haven’t focussed on enough in the past, so I need to make more of them.

So, that’s how I’d run D&D my way. Anything you’d add, or think I’m being controversial about? I’m still musing on what to run, and who for – I’ve only got one player confirmed, so shout up if you’re interested! Currently thinking Rime of the Frostmaiden or Curse of Strahd, but could be persuaded by Witchlight as well – if you’ve got and recommendations, let me have them! I need to have a proper look at Tales from the Yawning Portal, too – I think that might break my no multi-day dungeoning rule, but it’s a way to cover a lot of classic adventures in turn. Saltmarsh may be a better option. As I said, I need recommendations!

Zero to Zero – running 1st level D&D one-shots

Sly Flourish is a genius, and I agree with him about nearly everything D&D-related. He’s wrong about skill challenges, though (they’re one of my favourite things in any game, as these posts will testify) – and he’s wrong about 1st level adventures. I’ve run most of my D&D5e one-shots at 1st level, mostly for people new to the hobby, and I’m posted a few on here – check out The Goblins and The Pie Shop, The Rats of Rothsea, and Tower of the Stirge – and the pregen sheets I use to try and make things simpler.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

But there’s a particular set of advice that I’d suggest for 1st level D&D. It’s really not that deadly, if done right, and while players don’t have quite as many options as they do by 3rd level, they do have options in the right place. For me, 1st level one-shots come down to three things – Support, Survivability, and Stakes.


You can ignore this, to some extent, if you know you’ve got seasoned D&D vets. But usually, when I’m running 1st level D&D, I’m expecting some players new to the hobby. The Starter Set and Essentials Kit are great, but… their character sheets are ridic. You need less detail, and more help, on them – and so I made these, which I stole from (I think) an insta post from someone from Critical Role… sorry I can’t give a more exact credit, but in fairness it was in the background of a photo.

For spellcasters, I’ll first of all steer newbies away unless they’re up for a bit of reading what spells do, and/or resource management. Otherwise I’ll have spell cards, or a handout with the details clipped from the SRD. Certainly nobody should be looking stuff up in the Player’s Handbook at the table.


A 1st level, your PCs need plenty of rests. I sort of run D&D like this at higher levels like this, anyway – trying to face a challenging combat with 1 spell slot left is no fun when some classes’ long rest abilities run out. I normally go for a ‘training’ encounter, then a long rest, and another (sometimes inserted in with handwavey magic refreshing) before the final fight with the big bad.

I think you also need to be careful with enemy damage – challenge ratings are generally a fairly good indicator of challenge, but my rule of thumb is to avoid any attack that can take a PC out in one hit – that’s just too swingy for me. I’m a great fan of the starter adventure in Theros, but the initial encounter is with creatures that do 1d8+3 +2d6 poison damage – that’s not 1st level compliant, for me. Oh, and I generally roll enemy damage – it gives a bit more threat and jeopardy to know that one arrow could do 8 points of damage and really worry them.


Even at 1st level, keep the stakes high

Clearing out giant rats is no fun, despite me writing an adventure about it. Give your 1st level one-shot serious stakes – one of my very favourite DCC adventures, The Hole In The Sky, pits the 0-level funnel PCs against a 200 foot tall demon! At the very least, their failure should have somebody’s life on the line, or the well-being of a village or town that will then hold them up as heroes.

Bridge the gap between the PCs and these stakes by getting them to answer questions that tie them to the background. In my latest 1st level one-shot, it begins with a wedding, and the players describe how they’ve got an invite. In playtest, this led to some great emergent NPCs, and a genuine interest in the event passing well – which served as a baked-in motivation.

In terms of in-game scene-by-scene stakes, have failure conditions in mind. 1st level is swingy as hell, and you can end up with a TPK with a run of bad (or good) rolls… have a plan in mind where they wake up in the goblin’s dungeons (or wherever) and get one last chance to escape.

I certainly aren’t going to stop running D&D at 1st level any time soon, and I’ve got a lot of good work out of it so far. I haven’t talked about it here, but worth noting that a lot of the AL stuff has 1st level players doing 2-4 one-hour mini-adventures, which as you’d expect I’m a fan of – this helps the long rests situation. 

What’s been your experience of 1st level D&D? Let me know in the comments. 

Heard About The Dungeon? – A Rumour Tables Hack

A staple of the TTRPG adventures I grew up on (mostly from Dungeon magazine) was the rumour table. Before venturing out of the safety of the town to explore the dangerous area (usually a dungeon, obviously), PCs could ask around and get some useful clues about what was going on. Usually, this table contained a mixture of true, false, and almost-true rumours – and which rumour was heard was entirely random.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

I like this idea – a random table is a good way to abstract an evening spent asking around the tavern before the mission. It prevents over-preparation if you have a finite number of rolls on it – and I also like the jeopardy of potentially hearing a false rumour, and the confusion that could cause.

But I’m not as keen on it being entirely random, or the pay-off for a false rumour not being clear. If PCs expect every rumour to be true, they’ll feel cheated when they act on a false one – and similarly, once they realise some are false, they’ll be reluctant to act on actually true rumours in case they turn out to be incorrect.

So, here’s a proposed solution, which I came up with while messing around with my notes for the a potential DM’s Guild submission

The Rumour Check

When you ask around the town for details of the dangerous place, or research such a place in the town records, make a skill check for an appropriate social or research skill. On a success, roll 1d6 on the Rumour Table; on a failure, roll 1d12.

On the Rumour Table, entries 1-6 are filled with TRUE rumours about the place; entries 7-12 are filled with FALSE, HALF-TRUE, or USELESS rumours. It’s worth considering, particularly with the 7-12 entries, whether your rumours will at or subtract from the fun – dire warnings and instructions to, e.g., stay away from the pit traps – are likely to lead to over-cautious players. Try and make them a call to do things in the site rather than not do them.

Why is this an improvement? Well, on a failed roll, the player (and his PC) knows he hasn’t been successful. Maybe he’s chanced upon the town drunk who previously was claiming to be a high elf heir, or the book he’s found is full or lurid, unlikely, or patently false information. Nevertheless, the information gleaned might still be true – there’s a choice to be made as to whether to act on it, knowing it could be false. A successful roll gets rightly rewarded, and the players can be relatively confident that rumour is true.

Of course, you could always roll 1d4 or 1d8 on a 1-8 table, if you’re stuck for ideas – but coming up with 12 is an interesting thought exercise in grounding your dungeon in the rest of the world – what have people heard about it? What has happened before?

Here’s an example, for the freely-available Tomb of the Serpent Kings adventure (which is designed as an intro to OSR-style adventuring, and is excellent – well worth a read even if you never run it).

Result (d6/d12)Rumour
1Tombs of that age were often built with a false tomb to deter robbers – the real treasures lie deeper (true)
2Tombs like this often show mechanical traps near their entrance to deter robbers – in particular anywhere that people don’t travel down, so look out for locked doors and check them for traps (true)
3You might want to pack some holy water and symbols of St Cuthbert – or take a cleric with you – one thing you find in tombs is undead, and I’ve heard of them stalking around the tomb (true)
4Rumours are the serpent people who built the tomb had fell magics, and could even keep themselves alive beyond death – there might still be undead serpent people down there – and who knows what they would make of this world? (true)
5The caves near to the tomb had some raids a few years back – weird fungus-covered goblins, who disappeared as soon as some adventurers sorted them out (true)
6Some adventurers did come and plan to raid the tomb last year, and never returned – either they got too scared to come back to town, or there’s something or someone in those tombs (true)
7There’s an underground chasm near those ruins – who knows what monsters might haunt those depths? (while true, this is of no use)
8If there’s one thing serpent people were scared of, it was fire – they can’t approach a burning torch, so I’ve heard (false, and certainly dangerous)
9There’s a stone golem somewhere down there – disturb the tomb and it’ll wander the world and seek revenge for its snake-masters! (true-ish, but the stone guardian can’t escape)
10We ran an old wizard out of town twenty years ago for necromancy – no doubt he now lairs in the tomb in the hills (false)
11There’s snakes around the hills and in the tomb. Luckily, I’ve got some antidote here – 2gp for a bottle, it’ll sting a bit going down but should help to pass the poison (false, and of course the antidote is cheap liquor cut with boot polish)
12The whole tomb is cursed – if you stay in there on the full moon, you’ll see the snake-men walk out of it and never return (false)

I’ll be using this the next time I write up a dungeony adventure – let me know what you think in the comments or at @milnermaths.

Prep Techniques: The Con Pitch

Previously on this blog I’ve talked about 5-Room Dungeons, Three Places, and Sly Flourish’s Lazy Dungeon Master method. Today I’m going to showcase another technique, which is my starting point for convention one-shots, but can be applied easily to any TTRPG session. It’s more of a pre-drinks technique rather than the actual prep pub crawl, but it’s a good way to go from a blank slate to a sketched-out session – and then you can get the beers in.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here.

What’s a Con Pitch?

At a convention, you’d write a snappy pitch for your game to entice players to sign up for it; this is either printed out on a sign-up sheet (maybe with some nice art to draw punters in) or posted online so that prospective players know what to sign up for. Like the blurb on the back of a book, it should sell the session and promise excitement and fun! As an example, here’s my pitch for a game of Sentinel Comics at the Owlbear & Wizards Staff convention that’s coming up:

In this terrifying issue, Ray Manta has hatched a devious plan to hold Freedom City to ransom, by kidnapping the hapless Mayor Thomas at the opening of Freedom City Aqualand. After dealing with the aftermath of his kidnapping, the heroes have to track down Ray Manta to his secret underwater base, find him, and battle him and his aquatic friends to save the mayor.

I also include a bit about what the system is, if there’s any PVP, etc – but that’s not relevant here. Writing this pitch is almost the very first thing that I do to prep for a con game – before pregens or scenes. Why? Because it focusses my thoughts into a simple specification for the session. I write this, then come back to it and make a session out of it – starting from this makes prep much more manageable!

What Do You Want From This? – Start with Goals

To get your con pitch ready, start by working out what you want to get out of it. If it’s a con game, you might want to showcase a system or a setting – what are the elements of that that you’d like to foreground?

If it’s for an ongoing campaign game, you might already have an idea of the next logical session that will follow on (in a sandbox game, ask your players at the end of each session what they do next and work from that). Or you might want to highlight or introduce an enemy or setting element they haven’t seen yet. Or highlight a PC; in a recent series of Star Trek Adventures I loosely modelled the first four sessions on spotlighting each of the PCs in turn.

In either case, you might also want to use a cool monster – by starting with an opponent, the rest can be fitted around it. For the purpose of an example, I’m going to pitch a D&D adventure set in Theros – the Greek-ish Magic setting they’ve recently put out (if you’re interested in Theros, as well as my review, check out this character primer and this supplement from Tim Gray – the first one in particular is invaluable for character creation). There’s a bunch of cool new monsters in it, but I’d like to run a one-shot featuring the Hundred-Handed Ones – giants surrounded by floating arms that serve as artisans and have beef with the archons. So let’s start from that point – we want them to fight a Hundred-Handed One at the climax of the adventure.

Notes, Notes, Notes

Before you write your pitch, you might need to fill in some details. For instance, if you’re running D&D or 13th Age, what level the PCs are is important (I’m completely not above reskinning stats to balance against the PCs, as in the 1st-level owlbear antagonist here). For a one-shot, you might work backwards based on your antagonist to work out the level you want your PCs to be – and then you can fill in some more potential opponents. Look at this post about fight rosters for inspiration – and my mantra is that fights are always easy or hard, never medium.

If you have that decided, look at any advice the game has for balancing fights and think about appropriate antagonists, and also exciting action scenes and interesting NPCs. Hold lightly onto these ideas – not all of them will make it, and you certainly won’t put them in your pitch, but it’ll get you in the right brain space to begin to have an idea of the shape of the session.

Look at the setting as well – both in terms of history and events, and what sort of terrain the session will be set in. A useful technique for me is to write down ten components you could put into it – ten might seem like a lot, but it’s in the stretching and uncomfortable thinking that you’ll get your best ideas. Again, not all of these will actually be used, but they give you a good framework.

Thinking about our Theros one-shot, a Hundred-Handed One is CR 15, so a quick eyeball of levels indicates 5 heroes should be at about level 11 or so for a big climactic fight with one and some minions. It’s Theros, so the Gods are everywhere, so let’s have Purphoros, God of the Forge, involved as well – this giant has stolen part of his forge, and seeks to remake the Archons work (which, inconveniently for many heroes, includes many of the cities of Theros) by his own hand in revenge. He’s taken over a Volcano Temple (map in the Theros supplement) and corrupted the priests and guardians to worship him.

Theros contains suggested monsters for Purphoros, so let’s have some CR4 Oreads (fire nymphs) to trick the party, and maybe a pair of CR5 Fire Elementals that can be tricked or bypassed. I like the idea of a four-armed hill giant guarding the entrance, too – should be a nice easy warm-up fight with some terrified cultists to start the session with.  A bit more daydreaming, and my  list of 10 components looks like this:

  1. Battling a hundred-handed giant in the bowels of a volcano-forge
  2. Riddling with corrupted fire nymphs through the temple innards
  3. Geseros, the flame-haired priest of Purphoros with a brass arm who entreats the players for help
  4. A treacherous climb through lava floes to the temple
  5. The forge’s steam-filled cooling system flooding corridors with scalding water
  6. A six-armed hill giant and his four-armed ogre companion who guard the temple for the Hundred-Handed One
  7. Terrified smiths of Purphoros that must be rescured or calmed
  8. A volcano being stoked to erupt and flatten a city – allowing the giant to remake it in their image
  9. A pair of pun-obsessed satyrs, the last explorers to visit the temple, who can offer hints of the terrors within
  10. A reassuring/terrifying intervention by Purphoros if the giant is defeated.

Write Your Pitch

Now, in less than 100 words, pitch your scenario. Start with a grabby opener – say what the key idea of the session is, and make it exciting! Go big with what the stakes are and what the PCs might face. Using questions is a good idea as well – Can you survive the treacherous Akorosian Sea? Will you defeat the mighty Kraken?

Oh, and give it a title – even if it’s a session in an ongoing game, session titles make them exciting and episodic, and give a hook to. If in doubt, just name it after a location – (Adjective) (Exciting Place) of (Noun) is as good a model as any.

Here’s our finished pitch for our Theros one-shot

The Doom-Forge of Purphoros

Purphoros, God of the Forge, calls for aid! His volcano-temple has been desecrated by an ancient, hundred-handed giant, who seeks to reform the city below in his own deadly image. Can you race up the lava floes, battling the corrupted forge-creatures and evading their deadly traps, to prevent the eruption? Or will you fall to Alekto, the Hundred-Handed One, renegade smith of the Archons? A D&D one-shot for five 11th level PCs.

What Next?

Next, wait. Leave the pitch at least overnight – and possibly for much longer, conventions often need games to be confirmed well in advance – and then flesh out the adventure using whatever more detailed prep technique you have. Let me know if you want me to develop the Doom-Forge into a full adventure – and maybe even run it for patrons – in the comments or on twitter @milnermaths.

D&D One-Shots, Part 3: Goblin Gully

In my last post, I talked about running a one-shot for six complete newcomers using an extended/modified version of Dyson Logos’ Goblin Gully one-sheet dungeon. I added some stuff to it, mainly to give a bit of an introduction to the core mechanics (with a straightforward battle against some bandits) and a chance for a bit of out-of-dungeon roleplaying (by interacting in the town before venturing to the dungeon).

It worked really well as a 1st-level introductory game. The dungeon is just complex and multi-layered enough to give a chance for tactical decisions, and the final encounter really emphasises that sometimes you don’t have to defeat the enemy, just capture them. My notes that I used, in addition to the original dungeon, are below. And check Dyson’s stuff out! There are loads of really good maps, geomorphs, and adventures on his website.


The PCs are young, thrusting adventurers out to earn their fortune. They have recently taken their first, exciting, job – escorting the merchant Donia and her husband Reaghan through the High Forest to the village of Stone Stand.

They are attacked by bandits, and Reaghan is wounded before they are able to chase them off, and they learn that there is much increased bandit activity – linked to the goblins near the Kalil Slave Pit. At the town, Donia and the innkeeper Jarrod engage them to investigate the Slave Pit and drive off the goblins.


Donia is an able and capable merchant, middle-aged with a steely stare and an eye for business.

Reaghan, her husband, is a feckless idiot, an ex-adventurer who doesn’t see why the PCs should have been hired since he can easily deal with a few bandits.

Jarrod, the innkeeper of the Wyvern’s Rest, is a stout and hearty barkeep who  just wants the best for Stone Stair.

Scene One – Ambush!

As the players round a corner in the depths of the High Forest, less than a day’s travel away, their cart sticks in the mud – closer inspection (DC 10 perception) shows that a groove has been hollowed out in the road deliberately to trap them. As they inspect, Spencer and his Bandits approach – Reaghan immediately challenges them, and is seriously wounded by an arrow for his troubles.

There is one Bandit for every PC, plus Spencer, the leader. They attempt to flee if the battle starts to clearly go against them, which it probably will.

Spencer: As a normal Bandit but hp 18.

Searching the bandits they find two potions of healing (regain 2d4+2 hp) and a map showing the details of the Kalil Slave Pit, with scrawled notes on it – Keep Adventurers Away from Stone Stand, and from the Pit – Maglubiyet will reward you (10 gp/adventure head – double if alive!).

Reaghan can be stabilized with a Wisdom (Medicine) DC 10 check, or any healing that restores even 1hp. If there isn’t a cleric or paladin in the party, consider them finding an extra potion of healing – maybe on Spencer. Once he is stabilized they can continue to the village.

Tracking the bandits

If they are keen to track them, they can make a Wisdom (Survival) DC 10 check to show that they have a basic camp about half a day’s march away. There they may be able to ambush the remaining bandits, or question them about the goblins

Questioning the bandits

Spencer and his men are opportunists – they dug the hole in the hope of a cart coming along because they’ve tracked the PCs for the past day. The goblin bounty has made ambushing carts much more lucrative as there are often adventurers amongst them. They will plead with the PCs to let them go, or failing that to at least take them back to town – Wisdom (Insight) DC 10 will reveal that what they are really scared of is being sent to the goblins.

Scene Two – Stone Stair

Stone Stair is a picturesque village in the middle of the wilderness, nestled on either side of stone steps up a hillside, making it very defensible but also reliant on imports for food. The one tavern, the Wyvern’s Rest, is run by Jarrod, a retired adventurer. As they are settled and rested, they will learn that Stone Stair has been beset by bandits – none have dared attack the village itself yet, but many supply carts have gone missing, and there are rumours of goblins abroud in the hills to the north as well.

Jarrod and Dorian will offer the PCs 200 gp to clear out and/or investigate the old Kalil Slave Pits – a mysterious wanderer, Kras, will tell them that he has seen the bridge has been restored to it.

Gathering Information

They can question any of the NPCs around town about the Slave Pits – on a successful DC 10 check of an appropriate skill they receive a True rumour from the Goblin Gully sheet, on a failed on they receive a False one – but will know it is questionable.

Scene Three – Goblin Gully

The PCs can make their way to the Kalil Slave Pits and explore Goblin Gully as per the one-sheet. Additional notes for each location are below.

By investigation, the goblins believe the black pudding to be an avatar of Maglubiyet, and have been throwing sacrifices in. They have been running short, so last week two goblins were pushed in, and their claw marks are visible on the walls as they tried to escape.

  1. Entrance – two Goblins up a tree. They attack with their shortbows.
  2. Antechamber
  3. Grand Hall – four Goblins guard here (or one per PC)  (Passive Perception 9 if sneak)
  4. Bridge Room – two Goblins will attempt to support combat in 3 – but not leave their posts.
  5. Bridge – to cross quickly is a DC 10 Dex save or they will be left hanging off a thread, a further save or they fall for 1d6 damage
  6. Gully Floor – the bodies carry a Scroll of Bless
  7. Empty Room – goblin in 8 to surprise
  8. Contains Graz’tur, a goblin boss, and three Goblins (XP 350)
  9. Secret Chamber. The door is trapped, and secret (DC 10 to find, DC 15 to disarm – or DC 15 Dex save or 1d10 damage from a dropped rock)
  10. Secret Storage. There is a +1 Longsword here, but if it is disturbed then the Animated Armor at the back of the room attacks with its ornate two-handed sword – this sword detects as magical.
  11. Four goblins, can be ambushed easily
  12. The Pit. Contains a black pudding. Required DC 15 Wisdom save to flee and shut the door. The door to the Pit is barred by heavy wooden bars, and the sword in 10 can be used to seal the portal permanently.

So, there are my notes for Goblin Gully (posted with Dyson’s permission, I should add). What are your favourite short dungeons to introduce D&D to newcomers?

Next post, I’ll talk about prepping one-shot games for D&D.

D&D One-Shots, Part 2: Absolute Beginners

Here I talked about why we should be running D&D one-shots; I shared some pregens here (there will be more of them later); and I talked about the start of sessions here. In this post I’m going to offer some tips from experience for running for a table that are entirely new to tabletop RPGs. Some of this advice will be D&D focused, but a lot of it goes for any system where you have a lot of players who are new to the hobby.


Best advice for running D&D for new players

Bring All The Stuff, Make Friends

You will need dice for everyone. You will need pencils for everyone. You will need an index card for each player to make a name tent (with their character and ‘real’ name on, if the group doesn’t know one another). Do introductions. Be nice to people. Be aware that if this is a new group, weird social dynamics can emerge, and you share some responsibility for making sure that people don’t dominate or shy away.

1st Level is Fine

With more experienced players, or in a convention slot, I’d probably want to start at least at 2nd level, to give players a range of options. With new players, I take advantage of D&D’s training levels and stick to level 1. Why?

  • there’s an obvious action each round so they don’t have to worry about ‘doing the right thing’
  • the mental arithmetic is easier with fewer hit points and options
  • there are less ‘rules exceptions’ – rules that change other rules, that are really confusing if you’ve not used the actual rules before

Keep it As Simple As You Can

The pregen sheets I used (in the same format as the 2nd level characters here) are here. From the feedback of my six new players, they were easily complex enough – in fact they couldn’t believe that the actual character sheets were more complicated than this, until I showed them the one in the back of the Player’s Handbook.

I had spell cards for the sorcerer in the game, and I’d recommend having them ready, and introducing that PC as the most challenging. In my game I nudged the sorcerer towards the one player who had his own set of dice – that seemed to indicate he’d be down for a bit more processing, even though he hadn’t played before.

Teach Core Concepts First

After a quick tour of the character sheets, I’d recommend teaching the core concept of D&D. The core concept, in case you are wondering, isn’t “roll 1d20 and add a bonus,” the core concept is this:

Say what your character does, and we’ll work out what happens from there.

The reference point I used was videogame RPGs, as that was one point of reference they were all familiar with. Saying it’s like you have dialogue options, except you can say whatever you want, and I’ll say what the NPC says, helped, as did referring to combat as being turn-based like Final Fantasy.

Model What To Do

So, as I talked about here and here, I like to do a bit of an introduction for a one-shot to bind the PCs together. This felt a bit like throwing them in at the deep end, so I just asked for a brief description of what their character looked like and acted.

I modelled this first myself by describing the merchants who had hired them – the confident, worldly wife and her feckless moustached husband who didn’t understand why they needed to hire adventurers for support as he could deal with any bandits himself. They then went round and, following my lead, described their PCs in a similar amount of detail. I did some interjecting, like “I’m thinking you’re a pretty wide-eyed and innocent…” and giving positive feedback while they did this.

This was absolutely crucial to the action that followed. When their cart was inevitably attacked by some bandits, one of the fighter’s first actions was of course to check on the female merchant in the cart that she was OK – while the sneaky sorcerer hid under the cart and hoped he wasn’t noticed until it was obvious he had been.

Get the Action / Roleplay Balance Right

I think this varies for each game, but for D&D I was certain I was going to use a proper dungeon – so I started with Dyson Logos’ excellent Goblin Gully, and added an inciting event (the aforementioned bandit attack, and then some investigation in town) before they ventured to the dungeon. Prioritising the roleplay and being your character meant that, even in combat, everyone was describing their awesome (or not so awesome) moves. I’ll be sharing my notes on how exactly I did this, and my D&D5 conversion for it, in a later post.

Minis: You Do You

I didn’t use minis, because they aren’t me. I never really use them – even when I played in a mini-campaign of Pathfinder, we managed to muddle through (I’m not a fan of the term “Theatre of the Mind,” either, as it just sounds pretentious).

But if you’re a GM who uses minis, by all means crack them out – props are good, and they provide a good focus for the play. I would definitely have had less swashbuckling derring-do from my PCs with a map, but that’s just my tastes I think.

Enjoy it!

Running D&D for six complete newcomers is one of my most exhilarating experiences at the table this year. I can’t recommend it enough – not just for bringing new people into the hobby, but for the enjoyment yourself of seeing them grow in confidence through the game. And, despite what I’m saying in a lot of these D&D posts, after a few games of D&D it might be time to talk to them about other games – and see if they want to give, say, Star Wars a try.

Have you run games for complete beginners? How did it go? In future posts I’ll expand on how I opened out Goblin Gully, and give my own approach to balancing encounters and timings for D&D5.