Starting a DnD campaign is always rough if you’re just starting out as a Dungeon Master.
Luckily, there are a few simple things to remember to make sure your game starts off on the right foot.
The most important thing to remember before starting your DnD game is to communicate with your players every step along the way.
Communicate with Your Players Before Starting a DnD Campaign
Communicating with your players ahead of starting your game is probably the most important part of planning your campaign.
This is all assuming you have a group to play with. If you don’t, you can find games using sites like Roll20’s Looking for Group page or RPG Table Finder.
Talk with your players about what they enjoy in their games. Maybe they like more combats or heavy role-playing. Maybe they don’t like high-magic and prefer middle or low fantasy. Maybe they’ve always wanted to try a science-fantasy game.
This isn’t to say you should do whatever they say. You should communicate what you’re comfortable running as a Dungeon Master.
If you’re not confident in running a science-fiction game or a heavy political intrigue campaign, let your players know.
And, that’s the main point of this; comfort.
You don’t want to push your players into situations they’re not okay with. Yes, sometimes our games force player characters to make difficult decisions. But, you should never, ever deliberately include something your players are uncomfortable with.
I’m talking controversial topics for the most part. But, even describing monster deaths in a little too much detail may not be okay for some players.
What Level Should I Start My DnD Campaign At?
What level you start your players at in your DnD campaign is entirely up to you.
Personally, if you’re playing with new players, I recommend starting them at 1st level. While they lack a wealth of their character’s features, starting them from level one won’t overwhelm them. Especially if they’ve never played any sort of TTRPG before.
Past that, do whatever you want that’s appropriate for the kind of game you’re playing.
But typically, most DnD games seem to start the players at 3rd or 5th level. Both are good options for semi-experienced players as these milestones feature a lot of fun new class abilities and powers.
What is a Session Zero?
A session zero is when you and your players talk about what everyone’s comfortable with, their limits, and expectations for the game. You’ll usually want to schedule one before starting a DnD campaign so you and your players know what is and isn’t allowed.
Your session zero helps make sure you don’t include something your players are uncomfortable with in your game. Also, it gives you an opportunity to explain your game’s setting and themes a bit more.
Ideally, you’d have your session zero before your players make their characters.
This way, your players can make their characters with your setting and themes in mind. They might want to work their backstories into the world or campaign. All of which invests your players into the story.
If their characters have personal stakes in the plot, they’ll be more invested in the game.
Also, ask what your players expect from the game.
Work those expectations (within reason) into the campaign when possible. Your players will love it when a specific monster shows up or when a certain opportunity presents itself as it relates to one of their backstories. And, the excitement (or dread) when they reach these moments is one of the best parts of running a DnD game.
Your session zero is also a good time to tell your players common elements and themes in the upcoming game.
This will prevent an excessive lore dump during your first session. And, it helps your players prepare for when you start the game.
Your players might be new to the setting but their characters have lived in it for however long they’ve been alive. So, they’d know common (and maybe a few uncommon) pieces of knowledge about the world.
Plan Out Your DnD Game
The first step to starting a DnD campaign is planning.
You need to plan out a vague idea of your game ahead of time. What’s the setting? Who’re the major players (not player characters, but important, plot-relevant NPCs)? What’s the main conflict?
Create a short pitch for your players.
Write a short description that explain the ideas and themes of your game. Then, present it to your players to gauge their interest.
I recently ran a one-shot for my players because half of our regular group couldn’t make the regular game. So, I pitched them a few ideas I had rattling around. And, the one they picked had the following description:
"Eldritch Wild West
Set in a new land known colloquially as The Frontier. A wide and mysteriously uninhabited land that appeared some 10 years ago. People seeking a fresh start flocked there and continue to do so. Something’s happened at the aether-coal mine and the sheriff’s posse is meant to investigate."
Is it perfect? No. It’s a little long and includes some potentially superfluous detais. But, it tells the players what the theme is (Eldritch Wild West), a short backstory of the setting (mysterious land appeared out of nowhere), and what their characters will be tasked with (helping the sheriff investigate the aether-coal mine).
I had three other pitches ready and basically told my players "pick the one that sounds most fun."
From there, I fleshed out the game, made NPCs, set challenges, and so on.
The pitch you present to your players needs to convey the type of game you plan on running.
What Should Happen at the Start of Your D&D Campaign
There are 3 things you should introduce at the start of your DnD game:
- The world and setting
- The player characters
- The villain
You should feature these three elements close to the beginning when starting a DnD campaign. So, let’s break down why.
The World & Setting
Introduce the setting to your players as their characters experience it. Give them important pieces of common knowledge so they understand how to interact with the world.
Now, am I saying dump exposition on them?
Lore dumps aren’t fun for anyone (except the DM). So, you shouldn’t explain every little detail of the world at the start of your DnD campaign.
But, you should describe the state of the local area and maybe a few plot points as they relate to the start of your adventure.
Introducing the world gives your players context for their characters. And, helps to draw them into the story of your game.
The Player Characters
Obviously, you’ll want to introduce the player characters at the start of your DnD campaign. But, it’s more like allowing your players to introduce their characters to each other.
Even if you do something non-traditional like having your players play as other characters as part of the first session, you should give your player characters a chance to interact with each other.
There needs to be a certain level of buy-in from your players on this. Ideally, your initial plot hook draws your player characters in to taking action. So, try to make your first adventure (and the chain of adventures to follow) grab your players’ collective attention.
But, make sure to give each player a chance to introduce their character.
I find it better to let your players do this rather than have the DM describe each one. 1) That’s work you need to remember, and 2) your players should be proud of their characters, let them have fun introducing them.
You should feature the villain at the start of your DnD campaign in some way. Either through rumors or direct interaction, introducing your players to the villain of the game teases what’s to come down the road.
This is something that I think isn’t all that common.
I love dropping the Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG) in session one. They show up, have a show of force, and leave. That or you have rumors swirling throughout the town or clues about sprinkled throughout the first adventure.
Featuring the villain at the start of your DnD game gives the players a taste of what they might face in the future.
That might either make them motivated to dethrone a tyrant or afraid of facing a powerful dragon. Whatever their reaction is, it’s a fun teaser for later in the game.
That about covers starting a DnD campaign. These are very general rules. But, remember; the most important thing is to talk with your players. An open line of communication means the beginning of your game will go as smooth as possible.
All you need to do now is plan out the story, populate your world, set obstacles for your players, make sure your player characters are made correctly…yeah, there’s still a lot to go.
How do you prepare to start a new DnD game? Leave a comment to help other new DMs in the comments.