Campaign Journal #1

Session Zero, Meeting the Cast

I imagine everyone is sharing a similar experience in some way right now: The past few weeks have been a ride.

Despite it all, we managed to get together on Discord for a first meeting/session zero for the new campaign. Hopefully, circumstance permitting, we will continue to play DnD every week now around the same time and this project can start to come together.

What is this project? My hope is to follow along with my preparation as a Dungeon Master for what I see as a pretty typical homebrew campaign. I’ll be talking about my prep work for each session, then breaking down how that prep works out in the actual session every week. This is the fifth campaign I’ve run, so I’m far from considering myself an expert Dungeon Master – especially since, as is often the case, only one of those campaigns lasted longer than a year and most didn’t finish. Instead, what I’m offering is a chance to watch me stumble along and continue to learn as I attempt to teach the wisdom I’ve gathered so far from my experience, my personal research, and what I’ve brought from my background in theatre.

The campaign will be played remotely, which is turning out to be a good thing with the pandemic going on – both because the game is unaffected and suddenly this is more relevant advice to people that haven’t dealt with online DnD games before. I’ll try to touch on the specifics of that a little bit in future articles in light of the situation. If the mood strikes me, I may even do a separate post on running a DnD game on Discord but I get the distinct feeling better people than me have already done so.

There was a short pre-series outlining some of the work I did before this first meeting. You can start with part one here, and take a look at the town I set up as a starting location for the players here.

Here’s what I have going into session zero:

  • A timeline of the last 100 years of major events in the world (this takes place in the same world as my last campaign, 100 years later)
  • An understanding of the current political situation of the area I want to work in, with plenty of potential for tension and plot hooks
  • The basic assumptions of the world (magic level, presence of gods, etc.)
  • A solid outline of a starting location, and a general grasp of the area around it
  • Ideas about possible themes to explore and focus in on as the campaign progresses, to provide further inspiration when I prepare adventures later

The most important thing to bring into this first meeting, though, is a good idea of what you want out of the campaign. I want this to be a character-driven campaign, and I’ve taken extra steps in the set-up to gather seeds of possible plot hooks from the players. With each player I asked specific questions about their character background when helping them flesh it out; as a standard, each player carries some sort of debt or shadow from their past that may return to haunt them and each one also has a friendly contact somewhere in the world to lean on (the latter was to balance out the bad feeling of forcing a negative into their background).

So, before I get into how session zero went, we should meet the player characters! After all, the Dungeon Master acts as the supporting cast; the player characters are the stars.

Kaltog: Minotaur Artificer

This world is one in the grips of a wave of colonialism, and all the atrocities that come along with it. Kaltog’s people have lived a nomadic way of life in the plains of the Great Expanse for generations as far back as anyone can remember, but their way of life is crumbling now under the heel of the relentless march of conquest by “civilized society”. While the plains have been largely left untouched through the first hundred years of colonial expansion, recent tensions between major powers in the area have started to turn it into a battlefield where colonial powers fight out their political beefs through proxy wars. Every year, new settlements encroach further and shrink the borders of the frontier a little bit more.

Kaltog is a young, proud Minotaur that has always valued his cunning and intelligence over the brute strength of his peers. Believing himself better than the life he was born to and his people, Kaltog left his tribe after seeing the fantastic technologies of these strange newcomers. He has completely adopted their fashion and is doing his best to integrate into their world.

I try hard not to push players to specific character choices, but I can admit I was really hoping at least one person rolled an indigenous person – so I’m eternally grateful to Kaltog’s player. His background has a lot of meat to chew on. Kaltog is going to have to see the consequences of his past choices, and may have to choose between his tribe and his new life at some point in the future. He’s pulled between those two worlds, equally reviled by both on some level – seen by colonial peoples as amusing at best and threatening at worst, seen by his own people as a traitor to their kind.

Dave: Goliath Barbarian

Next up, we have another person from a nomadic tribal background. Goliath in this world live mostly in the mountains of the Northwild, on the old continent. Dave (not his original name) is no different. His tribe was the last to swear allegiance to the new, expanding Thurrem Dominion. When the matter came to a vote of the tribe, Dave was the only dissenting voice. He valued the freedom and independence of their lifestyle, and did not wish to see them bend knee to anyone – even someone who would “restore glory to giant-kind”.

He refused to yield, and forced the tribe to exile him rather than concede his vote. He carries a brand now, burned on his left shoulder that a small few might recognize as the mark of an exile of his kind. After being cast into the wilderness with no support and only a few simple tools and weapons, he wandered until he found a road where he happened upon a merchant in danger and intervened. The merchant took him in as a bodyguard and kept him well fed as payment for saving his life. That merchant, Clint Stinton, is the one that started calling him “Dave” and happens to be captain of the merchant ship the party is starting on.

Dave is going to be a fun character, though his backstory is unlikely to see much play directly in the game for a number of reasons. I don’t plan for the party to journey back to the old world (I won’t stop it if it happens, though), so the whole thread about the rise of this new Giant-kin empire in the Northwild is going to stay background flavor more than anything else. I can still find plenty of ways to bring his story into the main plot in more indirect ways, though. For instance, I have already designed what I plan to be a prominent NPC who is also an exile.

Sherlynx: Triton Blood Hunter

Tritons occupy an interesting middle-place between the “civilized” and “uncivilized” races of my world. They were once a great society with a grand city, but after some cataclysmic events that have been largely lost to history they were shattered as a people. Only recently, in the past few hundred years, have Triton begun to organize again into a centralized government that unites them – they had been split into dozens of tribes before that. Occupying and building a new city upon the ruins of their old capital, Juum, their fortunes improved little as they became a battleground between the rising naval power of Saltori to the west and their neighbor to the east, the ruthless Kingdom of Fonasia. Despite these hardships, the Triton people maintain pride in their ancient heritage and faith that their time will come again.

Sherlynx is a part of a special ancient order known as the “Trench Walkers”. As part of their rite of passage, she had to dive down the lowest parts of ocean and face what is in the dark abyss of the deeps. Many don’t survive this trial (the pressure from being at that depth alone kills many of them), but those with the strength in their blood to survive also emerge with knowledge of magics long forgotten elsewhere in the world.

Sherlynx undertook this rite very recently, only about a year before the start of the campaign. After the rite is complete, the new initiate is required to travel the world in a pilgrimage. They can go wherever they choose, but they are supposed to try to spread goodwill and help wherever they can for 20 years. Still new to the workings of the outside world, Sherlynx has already gotten into a bit of trouble by running up a hefty debt with a less reputable source before she really understood money. Between that spot of trouble and the fact that she had a friend take their pilgrimage to the Expanse a few years ago, she decided to catch a ship and skip over to the other side of the world for awhile. Her knowledge of what to expect from this place is largely informed by reading “Across the Expanse” on the boat ride over, a book by a travelling merchant that is as popular right now as it is inaccurate. On the frontier, she is the most out of her element of the party.

Session Zero: What’s it For?

All the above was worked out with the players before a first meeting, in one on one discussions. I tried to just be there to answer questions and explain what I have fleshed out so far for the campaign. I’m never very concerned with party composition, since I scale encounters to the party, and I tell them so. Other than that, many of the specifics and details are purely from the players. I like giving control of developing pockets of lore for my world to players like that, over time it helps build something that feels more like a real world than the invention of one person’s mind.

It seems like a lot of set-up before even meeting, but I believe that this kind of work now pays off really well down the line when done right.

Players are getting eager to play now, especially due to the lockdown situation keeping them homebound. The day before the game I made sure to check in with everyone that the agreed-on time still worked, also trying to build excitement and hype the game a bit. By the time we arrived at session zero there were already some calls to just go ahead and play a first session, but I stuck to my schedule rather than forge ahead into a session I wasn’t prepared for as an introduction to the campaign.

What is session zero for? I think it’s different for everyone, and for this campaign my primary goal was to discover how the player party was connected and try to get a feel for their dynamic. I also wanted to make sure everyone understands the setting, and that we’re all on the same page about what kind of game we want to play. This is the time to set rules for your game group if your group isn’t your partner, best friend, and brother like mine is.

Into Session Zero

This session zero played out more or less as I expected it to. There was some awkward stumbling at first as I tried to figure out where to begin with what I wanted to do (because I always plan ideas and not details) and a funny moment where two of the three players hadn’t realized they were starting on a flying ship (that’s gotta be my fault), but once we got talking everyone seemed to have a good time settling in and introducing their characters to each other. After a round of introductions during which I was definitely taking notes on what players chose to focus on, I started asking leading questions of each player to flesh out how they got involved with this ship and how they get along with the others. After that, we role-played a scene between the three characters as they took a break to play cards below deck, about two days out from their current destination of Kolinville (the starting town). This was a fun way to let the relationships develop naturally through the dialogue, and gave me a much clearer understanding of each character than I had from just the pre-game talks. If you’re going to do a scene like this, make sure you provide a prompt or activity of some kind for the players to lean on so they don’t have to build a scene from nothing. In this case, the card game gave the characters something to focus on when there wasn’t an obvious direction to go in the scene.

It still started awkwardly, of course, with nobody sure how to begin the scene. My instincts were screaming at me to have an NPC walk up and trigger a scene, but I remembered an old lesson I learned as a theatre director for moments like this – I leaned back, didn’t say a word, let myself be comfortable in the silence, and trusted somebody else would begin. They eventually did, and after a little initial hesitance the scene picked up quickly and soon everyone was in character, having a great time.

We learned that Kaltog is pretty fresh to the crew, having only done a job or two with them. He’s been especially interested in studying the magical crystal core that powers the flying ship they’re on, spending plenty of time with the mechanic Joanne (who was taken a liking to him and is showing him the ropes, he’ll probably eventually pick up a proficiency for his efforts).

Sherlynx feels like the most likely party face of the group, coming off as level-headed and a little shrewd in the card game. She won the game handily but gave the money back; she just likes to win. She seemed interested in learning more about Kaltog, but doesn’t seem to have a solid opinion yet. Dave amuses her, but they don’t talk at length.

Which brings us to Dave. Dave doesn’t really talk at length to anybody. Not because he’s trying to be tough, or rude, or shy; he just doesn’t really care to most of the time – and Dave doesn’t do things he doesn’t care for. He is definitely showcasing the best qualities of chaotic neutral: he doesn’t go out of his way to mess with people, but he doesn’t care if his actions affect them either. He clearly sees this ship as a home and the crew as a family he will fight to protect, but he is here in the first place so he doesn’t have to follow rules.

This loosely organized roleplaying session gave me a chance to start defining NPCs around the ship, too, which I realized only as we started that I had somehow forgotten to do. I whipped up three simple NPCs (Joanne the Mechanic, Jakob the Wizard, and Westley the Quartermaster), which should be plenty for my purposes – it’s a small ship to begin with, and definining too many NPCs quickly becomes wasted effort for you and information overload for players.

That’s really all there was to that first meeting; all in all, dice were only rolled twice (for the card game), and very little actual DnD was played. Expectations were set, characters were introduced, and we’re all ready to move ahead with the first session next week. Well, they’re ready, at least. I still have some prep work to do…

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