Welcome to a segment I’m going to call Mastered Machinations (for right now) – I’m not sold on the name (as big a fan as I am with alliteration), but it is going to give you a behind the scenes/screens look at the work that goes into setting up a game of Dungeons & Dragons. To be fair, this is the process I go through, so it should not be considered a tell-all/memoir or bible for dungeon masters (DMs) to adhere to. This is how I like to do things. If you like something, feel free to partake of it to use in your own games. By the same token, if you don’t like something, keep on doing you (as the kids say these days).
I will also be discussing some Adventure League – and how I prepare for those scenarios as well, but for the most part this segment will be about creating and maintaining a home game.
First thing’s first: world building. I’m currently running a Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition game so all of my answers will be based around that backdrop.
When you start out, it almost always starts with the question: What kind of story do I want to tell? With D&D 5e the emphasis of characters being heroes by virtue of their abilities and not their items set the tone for me – before I ever put pen to page, I knew it had to be about heroism. And heroes (as we have read time and again) and forged in war, so my story revolves around a war. Now, they can’t start thrust into the meat grinder of war, that tends to get monotonous. They have to start on the fringes of the war. They have to forge a name for themselves as heroes of a village or town – with the war a background song, like a reminder of the inevitable.
The story is centered on an island of five kingdoms currently besieged on two fronts: To the north a Dwarven kingdom is on the verge of collapse under the weight of the strength of the goblinoid races unified by an Orc warlord; and to the south an Elven kingdom is being razed to the ground by a raised army of undead under the control of demon-empowered mages. The characters enter the world shortly after the demise of two once-proud kingdoms.
Like we established: War is coming. It is still far enough away that the characters shouldn’t be itching to get thrown in the mix, but it should be something that they could be reminded of quite easily. Refugees and survivors are the easiest and most impactful visual aides (especially given this day & age’s conflicts). Messengers constantly arriving and leaving, with important and trivial messages alike. Crime rising as fear sinks its teeth into the backbone of society.
With world building, questions will naturally flow into one another. One of my favorite techniques to help me make sense of all the ideas that pop into my head when I’m at the drafting table is to write down the initiating concept in the middle of the page and spiderweb out from it all the ideas with threads tying back to the original and any other idea it could work with. It helps me a lot, and it is a fantastic tool for less linear games like the White Wolf games or with (my favorite game) Legend of the Five Rings.
Again, that’s just something that works for me. I’ve also used timelines, post-it notes, and one word lists – the only thing I cannot stress enough is: Buy a notebook! It could be a composition book, a spiral notebook, or a legal pad; but just make sure you have a place where your ideas are collected and anything that happens in the game is written down. A lot of the initial building of the world will be in your hands, but all you have to do is lay a strong enough foundation, and the players will happily build on what you started. Trust them as they’ve trusted you, and you’ll see for yourself.
Now we’ve probably brought up and answered our next question: Where does the game start? I went with a large lakeside town. Built around the readily available water supply and a remnant of a bygone age in the form of a crumbling wall – sturdy enough to provide fortification if need be. This was the backdrop for the first few levels. The threatening-to-burst-into-a-city-instead-of-a-town of Rathe’s Wall saw small crimes and sudden land buy-outs pointing to a mysterious figure.
Which we’ll continue in the next installment. Tomorrow I’ll talk about running the first hardcover adventure for 5e: Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Going to be using it to introduce new players to not just the game but tabletop role playing games in general. I’m really excited (and worried for them, those damn Kobolds and their pack tactics are scary).
But, as always, I hope to see you at the gaming table!