Advice On Running Your First D&D Campaign
Around the age of 12 or so, I decided that I would throw off my love of genre fiction, comics and all forms of geekiness in favor of more learned pursuits... and as a result, I managed to go my whole life without ever having the pleasure of playing a D&D campaign. Utterly depressing, I know.
Fast forward seventeen years of intellectual pretentiousness, and what you have is a 32-year-old man who desperately, desperately wants to get his buddies together for a Dungeons and Dragons campaign.
The good news is that I have a great group of friends and a wonderful girlfriend who are all game. The bad news? While some of us have dabbled with D&D very vaguely in the past, none of us really knows the best way to get a campaign together, or how to DM.
As such, it's probably going to fall to me to DM, since this is my bright idea in the first place. I'm pretty familiar with the rules and core concepts of D&D from years of playing various video games, like Baldur's Gate to Neverwinter Nights.
Here's my question: what is the best way for a group of complete noobs to have the best introductory campaign experience possible? What books do we need? Are there such things as pre-written campaigns or anything? What would you guys recommend?
Thanks in advance. I really want this.
For a room full of total rookies, the red box might work.
Yeah, either the red box or the Pathfinder Beginner Box would be a good choice.
Originally Posted by Giaddon
I might recommend the latter over the former. I think it's generally a better package, and Pathfinder has some great adventures and supplements if you get hooked.
(Note: Pathfinder is basically an iteration of DnD v3.5, while the Red Box is DnD 4e.)
As mouthy and opinionated as I am I've never run a game myself. Always been a player, decades ago when I was actively tabletopping, and a good one at that. But it was the other dude or dudess who did all that work and got all the glory of being the DM/GM/Storyteller.
So over the past couple years I've been thinking a great deal about actually getting back to tabletop and the only way I can ensure a good experience, based on what I've seen in live roleplaying these days, is to run something myself.
My first call wouldn't be D&D. I'd probably go with Mongoose's Traveller. Simple but engaging character generation that gets the players in the right mindset as they come out complete with backstories and ties to the other players in the group. A default campaign model, the freetrader (think Firefly), is baked into the setting and backed with mechanics. All the rules are fairly simple and straightforward. No minis or maps needed. It's even larded up with tables to generate worlds, critters and even adventures on the fly.
Traveller's about as close to a game that runs itself as currently exists. Others with strong campaign backbones include Ars Magica and Pendragon but they tend to assume more complicated concepts whether technical, Ars Magica, or philosophical, Pendragon.
If I were going to go with D&D, the old basic town and a dungeon in yonder hills, as a basic model I'd go with the old D&D Rules Cyclopedia. It's got the classic Basic D&D feel but with enough options included that you can expand activities all the way up to characters building fortresses and attracting followers and fighting wars/seiges.
The best part of the Cyclopedia, next to the fairly simple version of D&D it starts you off with, is its authoritative tone and the fact everything you'll really ever need is in the book. Advice about how to build dungeons or worlds, and there's a sample setting called Mystara included, or run your games is all in there.
The big problem with the Cyclopedia is that it's hard to find for a reasonable price as anyone with a copy won't be parted from it and it's decades out of print. But it really is the D&D bible at this point. Complete, playable, and full of advice and possibilities for expansion of the system worked right in.
No minis, maps or calculators required.
The best advice I can give is to not be overly consumed by the rules as a DM, particularly a new one. Don't be afraid to wing it if you need to for the sake of a fun time for your players and a good story. What I'm saying is that if they are trying to do something and you have no clue how to resolve it, don't be afraid to roll some random dice behind a screen and tell them it worked rather than spend ten minutes finding the rule. (obviously you don't want to overdo this, but getting bogged down in rules is the quickest way to lose the interest of your players). Above all, have fun.
Since you kept using the word "campaign", I'm guessing you're looking for more than just a one-shot. The Dungeon Master's Guide 2 for D&D 4e has a lot of useful information about rolling with the punches, stringing adventures together, and what to do if your carefully prepared encounters wind up not being encountered. Are you using a particular edition of D&D? Or Pathfinder? Or something else?
For Game Mastering tips that are more system-agnostic, if you have the time and the interest in the Star Wars movies, you could do worse than read the bottom of each installment of the webcomic Darths and Droids. There are some gems in there, especially for character-based campaigning rather than plot arc-campaigning.
In the only campaign I've played in, Rob, our DM, is great at taking prewritten campaigns and adding or subtracting characters or encounters to taste. We've been playing "War of the Burning Sky" for coming up on two years. That campaign was designed to take a party from level 1-30. The guys that wrote that also came out with a new campaign called Zeitgeist. Both are for D&D 4e or 3.5e.
PS and Caveat: I've never DMed or GMed a campaign. Take with a grain of salt.
EDIT: PPS: While we play and enjoy the 4e system, it's heavily computer-assisted. I don't think I'd want to try mucking about with combat grids and number crunching all freehand, especially with inexperienced players. Perhaps try a different system or use a program like RPtools or Fantasy Grounds to keep track of status effects and hit points and initiative and all that.
Last edited by Djscman; 01-24-2012 at 10:33 AM.
The Rules Cyclopedia is a wonderful book.
Originally Posted by Brian Rucker
While it's hard to get a copy of the original, there's an inexpensive retroclone available; the .pdf is free, and can be found here
The Pathfinder Beginner Box is a much better product than the 4e Redbox, but I think Pathfinder isn't a great choice for an introductory game of D&D. If you want to go with currently-in-print mainstream products, I'd advise the 4e Rules Compendium for the GM, Heroes of the Fallen Lands for the PCs, and Threats to Nentir Veil for monsters, ready to go badguys, adventurous locations, and the like.
Originally Posted by BiggerBoat
I'd recommend getting the Blue Rose core rules.
It's a stand-alone RPG system and campaign setting in one book, and includes a pretty great introductory adventure. The system is a slightly simplified derivative of the D&D3e system you know from the Neverwinter Nights video games, with slightly greater emphasis on actual role playing. The campaign setting should, contrary to the cutesy packaging, appeal to pretty much anyone not allergic to high fantasy, and it is both fairly extensive and of a consistently high quality.
And the whole thing is very much geared to be a "my first RPG".
I'm really tempted to recommend Pendragon as well, but it's a much more Serious Role Playing game than D&D or Blue Rose. And while the system is kind of a relative of both 1e and 3e D&D, it's more distant uncle than bastard offspring like Blue Rose.
Very, very good game none the less. But you might want to try reading everything you can about it, before deciding to get it.
Run a practice game here on QT3. All the experts we have will be sure to point out areas of improvement!
More seriously (though I would like to see something like a QT3 RPG game running), just get one of the packages mentioned above and dive in.
Since everyone else has already pitched in with their rules advice, here's some generic advice for a first time GM:
1. Use a published adventure. This will take the grunt work off of you in terms of prep.
2. READ the published adventure several times before you try and run it. It's absolutely essential to understand the major NPCs and locations and anticipated scenes.
3. Don't stick to the script if the players veer off. Some published adventures are better than others for accommodating players who want to try oddball approaches to progressing the plot. If you have to improvise, improvise.
4. Do your homework and be prepared. Have bookmarks in your books for the traps and monsters you want to use. Ditto for the spells that you think characters will cast. Have a spreadsheet handy, if you are inclined to computer assisted gaming, to handle keeping track of the hit points and initiative for all the villains you have to control in a fight.
5. Act like an antagonist but don't really be one. The GM/DM is often perceived by the players as someone who wants to kill them, and I like to play that up personally so that the players get a better sense of accomplishment for having beaten my fiendishly difficult adventures. However, all that being said, the *point* of being the GM is providing a fun game for the players. If the difficulty curve is proving too steep for your players don't be afraid to slide them some hidden help. Have a NPC provide a lot of plot help. Fudge rolls for your monsters/NPCs so your players can prevail despite boneheaded tactics. You have the power to make the players really feel like heros. Use it.
Last edited by Tortilla; 01-24-2012 at 12:32 PM.
Thanks for the great advice so far, guys. Which published adventure do you think would be the best one to start out with?
If you go the classic D&D Cyclopedia route you can knock your own lil' dungeon out like we did in the good old days. It's not rocket science and the manual holds your hand in thinking this thing through.
Of course, if you go past Cyclopedia and into D&D 4.0/Pathfinder/D&D 3.5 then, well, it is rocket science. And you certainly should go with a published adventure. If you go with the boxed sets, mentioned above, they come with adventures. Both are basically DM moderated boardgames with simplified RP rulesets you can use to learn the basics.
Apologies for length
Greetings and salutations everyone!
Some ideas for your first session:
You and your players will probably have a varying smattering of rules in your minds as you sit down to play. You're just starting out as a DM and probably will not be able to command absolute attention, especially if there's more than a couple of players. You also probably have some idea about the setting that you would like to introduce and certainly in the back of your mind you will have some sort of glorious moment you would like your friends to experience.
You should get used to these aspects of tabletop rpgs, because these are the things you will have to manage for the rest of your DMing career: rules and how to use them, how invested your gaming group is in playing the game as you commonly craft it and the narrative that you personally would like to construct.
So, speaking from some experience, let me suggest to you to attack these problems head on, and delegate as much responsibility as possible to your players. However, using a published adventure will not help you for your first session in those regards: 1) you do not yet know how to do your homework and prepare a module; 2) you present yourself to your group as solely responsible for their enjoyment - so much so that you are prepared to purchase material to present to them; 3) beginning D&D modules are usually crap - DMs tend to remember the first module they ran, but not necessarily for the right reasons.
So here's a trick for you:
Take that glorious moment you imagine (or the high point of a published campaign that you have enjoyed) and make that the immediate start of your first session. Only twist it so that it is a failure of the PCs. For example, they are members of a routed army, or defeated adventurers running from an orc tribe/lich/dragon or whatever. This will give you several advantages.
Firstly, you will begin fulfilling your tale-telling obligations with something that already excites you, which is also thrilling for the players - instant drama! Don't worry that you might spoil that big set piece for yourself. It is quite probable that your gaming group might not survive so long that you will get to play it straight, so why not treat yourself. In any case, the PCs begin with a powerful incentive for revenge, so you will be able to revisit it for all the right narrative reasons. The most important thing however is to tackle any embarrassment you might have as soon as possible. So do it from a place that is already thrilling for you. This will also help you gauge the initial embarrassment your players might have and adjust accordingly, or just provide a good example for them.
However, if things are still uncomfortable with regard to role playing, do not despair! Because secondly, with this setup you will be able to introduce carefully chosen challenges that you and your players can use to learn the rules: since the setting is the aftermath of something big, it can be realistic (if that is something that you want to explore) that these challenges are minor (a couple of rapidly advancing orcs/some zombies the PC skipped on their way to the liches lair/wild fauna around the dragon's lair that they have to confront). But the point is that you can quickly introduce any the rules you want and keep things interesting. You can also take this one step further and have your players create their characters on the fly, as the need for specific attributes arises, but this might mean more intricate preparation on your part.
I believe that with this setup you will have a fun and memorable first session, so people will be more willing to show up for the next ones (this goes for you as well). The biggest advantage however is that thirdly, it gives you, the DM, who is nominally responsible with running the game (and in your case, you sound like you are the instigator for this thing) great opportunity to discuss with your players about the session and manage expectations for the next one. With this setup, the players should quickly acquire some attachment to their characters or to the world you suggested exists for them to explore. Now it is a perfect time to explicitly ask them what kind of narrative they would like to craft, if any, and what game they would like to play in general. Do not be afraid of breaking any fourth wall, gaming circle or whatever. You and your players will have had some feel for the rules, you've got some glimpse of the game world, and you've got your first brush with "role" playing and the run of the game in general. So, as you are still at the table, and as part of your session, explicitly discuss what is fun and what is boring, how much they expect from you to build for them and how much they would like to build for themselves. This will help you plan for the future, and will actually guide you in fruitfully exploring published material. Did they sound like imagining the setting as high fantasy or as low fantasy? Did they seem to expect realistically developed NPCs? You as a DM will have to develop an ear for this, so as to avoid expanding effort for something your group is not yet ready for. Remember, preparing for a session can be quite time consuming, don't let this time go to waste.
There are some other narrative advantages with this setup, but I've already gone on for too long.
Thanks for reading!
DrCrypt, I've never GM'd a DND game, but I have using several other systems, and I can mirror some of the advice here. I've known GM's who focus too much on rules and dice rolling and not enough on character and plot, making those games, to me, much less fun. I'd stress not about the rules themselves but focus on the players and the stories they'll tell you, and the paths they'll take your stories down. Be flexible enough with your plot ideas -- I only use a general outline with set pieces and such -- to allow your players to take the campaign in completely new directions, if necessary. Make sure you can also adapt to what the players will throw at you, because they never ever do what you expect. Also don't worry about using dice for every little thing. I've had many sessions wherein we've never thrown one die, because it's all been about plot and exposition, and everyone had a good time, or so they told me. ;)
Good luck, have fun, and be prepared to laugh a lot. In my experience, RPG sessions are 40% playing the game, and 60% laughing about tangents and one-liners. ;)
I've never DM'd either, but in a year or two I may want to introduce my son to D&D or the like. While it's appealing to keep a pile of books w/ bookmarks, a running spreadsheet, etc, as I'm fundamentally lazy, are there any laptop/iPad apps that streamline the DM experience?
I would strongly suggest getting away from a rules system.
When I was in school, learning rule and stats were the things I and my friends liked a lot. I recently tried to restart a campaign and we found that rules and stats detracted from the fun. Having a story to tell was more fun.
I would highly recommend the Burning Wheel system. It creates a cooperative system where the story handling goes back and forth between the players and the gamemaster.
It is also used in The Mouse Guard RPG and you can find an explanation of this system and a review at The D6Generation here.
I wish you the best of luck, our own attempt fell apart due to players not really sticking with it, those of us that did want a regular playing session are now starting a repeat group for Risk Legacy. :D
I would recommend staying away from published adventures myself, without memorizing everything, I find that they lend to a syndrome of the GM constantly referring to the book and not engaging with the players. Now granted maybe that's me and I tend to have a poor memory and like to be creative.
Originally Posted by Tortilla
Torilla's points 3 and 5 I strongly support, don't worry about going off script if you do use a published adventure, go where the story leads. And your job as the GM is really to create antagonists and tell a story with the players, not kill em.
I've only skimmed some of the replies so I'm sorry if this repeats anything that's already been said. I would recommend a published adventure for a new DM. I haven't played in a years so I don't know a good one to recommend. Look at the shelves in the books store and see if one jumps out at you. In my experience the published stuff is very helpful by pointing out all the rules and things that you might need to know for an encounter but a new DM might not remember.
Other than that, don't worry too much about following every rule. If a good story is created and a good time is had than your game is successful.
For myself I always used to have a pre-campaign talk with the players. I'd try to get them to create characters who got along with each other and have a reason to be together (you have no idea how many fights occur when "I'm just doing what my character would do"). Also, I would focus on what kind of game they wanted. Some people want very talky games with lots of politics and trade stuff while other people want none stop action and adventure. Its good to know what your group is looking for before you get started. This is all coming from a somewhat experienced DM who loved world building and creating custom adventures as much as actually playing them so take it with a grain of salt.
Burning Wheel is definitely not a game for beginners. It's packed full of interesting information and some cool, original, roleplaying concepts but even veteran gamers have issues working around the verbiage in the rulebook and sorting out how the rules, in fact, function.
I think my main concern for Dr. Crypt is that if he really wants a D&D experience, the kind he missed all those decades ago, that he probably should look to classic D&D materials like the Cyclopedia. The real beauty of early D&D is that it made being creative, being loose and having fun with characters and situations, easy. Not a lot of looking stuff up, and sure as hell not having to worry about spreadsheets and the like, once you had the basics down. And the basics were basic. It was called Basic D&D for a reason!
You could make simple dungeons and run things out of the book simply but just as easily you could let your imagination, as a DM, run wild and create whole campaigns and worlds and adventures without getting bogged down in stat blocs and a metric ton of picky and obscure rules. The rules were a guideline, back then, not a legal volume everyone has to constantly reference and argue about.
Both the Red Box and the Pathfinder Box include an introductory adventure that should be fine for that.
Originally Posted by DrCrypt
Also, Wizards offers another adventure for beginning characters, Keep on the Shadowfell, for free on their Try DnD site. There, you'll also find a free set of Quick Start Rules, including a set of pre-generated characters, which should allow you run that adventure by itself, if you want to, without any need for additional materials.
Keep on the Shadowfell was the original "preview" adventure for the 4th edition and was also the adventure used in the first series of the Penny Arcade/PvP actual play podcasts, if you're familiar with them. If not, they (or some other actual play podcast) might be worth listening to, to get an idea how an actual game goes down.
Well, if you're not going old school I found a discussion comparing the new D&D Red Box to the Pathfinder Beginner set. So here's more information for you.
One more thing, do you want it to be some flavour of D&D or a close relative, or can we also suggest other kinds of P&P RPGs?
That's why I emphasized the necessity of the DMing reading it several times before running it. A published adventure should ease the DM prep but not eliminate it because a DM still needs to be running the game and not stuck with his nose in a book the whole time.
Originally Posted by Corey Krosting
Running a PnP RPG session is a lot like running a meeting in a professional setting. No matter how great the material, if the presentation is just a wooden recitation of prepared slides (or bullet points, or pre-printed adventure flavor texts) then the audience isn't going to engage.
So after giving this a look, I'm leaning towards the Pathfinder Beginner's Box. What I really want is something really fun and relatively simple to ease us in as a group: if we get fanatic after that, we can up our investment in both time and money.
The only thing I'm confused by... Pathfinder isn't Dungeons & Dragons, right? Or is it? Is there some relation between the two? Can I shift from one to the other fairly easily?
I don't know how good of a narrator you are, but as a video game nerd you should have a veritable spank bank of combat related descriptions already in your head.
So, start off with combat. Don't try to impersonate some innkeeper or king or whatever if you're not comfortable with public speaking yet, get used to describing what is happening in as rational and straightforward a manner as you can before you begin taking on a role. Spend your first session explaining how the numbers and the dice work, go through some combat scenarios while describing the action as best as possible. If you have a grid and figures then you won't have to do too much of that, but it's best to just get comfortable talking to a group of people who may not know when or how to ask questions about what they can do.
Pathfinder is D&D (3.5E to be exact) in all but name. You see, back when Wizards released the 3rd (and subsequently the 3.5th) edition of D&D, they also released large parts of it (basically everything expect rules for generating ability scores, experience tables, a handful of iconic monsters and later optional supplements) under an "open" license (the Open Gaming License, OGL) for third parties to use, which led to a lot of smaller publishers releasing supplemental material for their game. Among them was a company called Paizo which published the official "Dungeons" and "Dragon" magazines under license from Wizards.
Originally Posted by DrCrypt
When the 4th Edition (4E) of D&D, the current one, came along with big changes in gameplay and much more restrictive licensing terms for third parties and Wizards also wanted to publish their magazines themselves again (albeit only digitally), Paizo decided to not go with them, but instead keep on supporting 3.5E. As the books for that would soon go out of print, they decided to release their own books by taking the "open" D&D rules, making some minor balancing and streamlining changes, adding their own rules for character creation and level advancement and calling it Pathfinder. So Pathfinder is 95% the same as 3.5E D&D, it just can't be called that and shifting between the two or even running an adventure written for one in the other shouldn't be much of a problem.
(On a sidenote, Blue Rose would be another example of an RPG derived from the open 3.5E rules, although one with much greater changes than Pathfinder.)
However, unlike some (most?) other RPGs, different editions of D&D itself can be substantially different from each other. And switching from one edition of D&D to another can be almost like learning a completely new system, so you can't easily switch from Pathfinder to 4E D&D or from 4E D&D to 3.5E or to Rules Cyclopedia D&D (an even earlier edition). And which specific edition of D&D is the best or easiest one can be a hotly debated topic.
Last edited by anymunym; 01-24-2012 at 04:28 PM.
Two words: gelatinous cubes.
It's probably not a bad thing to spend some time with D&D. It's the root of the genre and certainly the most popular option out there. But I would highly encourage that once you've spent some time with it you at least check out some of the many, many other systems on the market. D&D offers one style of roleplaying game, one that's got a decided emphasis on combat and some fairly restrictive concepts like classes and levels (which, by the same token, do make some things easier, like judging appropriate opposition). And there are certainly people for whom that is the optimal style. But there are so many other approaches out there.