YOUR FIRST CAMPAIGN: A GAME MASTERS GUIDE
Written by: Attic Arcana Dice
So you have been invited to a tabletop gaming campaign. Or, perhaps, you’ve been itching to run one, and have finally found a crew of friends ready to undergo that with you. In any case, there is a breadth of information available online for both interested parties, so much so that reading it all can leave one feeling overwhelmed! With so much advice on where to start, how can you be sure you know where to start?
Fear not! While there are many beasts to slay on your coming adventures, knowing where to get started is one beast you shouldn’t have to worry about. As a perpetual game master, that is, someone who typically runs games for her friends, I aim to give you my advice for starting out in a no-cliche, no-nonsense fashion. Rather than giving you a list of supplies or the things you need to buy, I’m here to give you my experience with tabletop management, beginner’s worldbuilding, and how to navigate table dynamics. Instead of getting a checklist, you’ll be given some wisdom to go ahead and forge your own path. This is all made to dispel worries, not add to them, so remember from the get-go: Take the first step on your campaign and gaming adventure. As you keep walking, you’ll once turn around and look back at where you came from.
Let’s start with the Game Master.
Game masters (Or Mistresses, if that’s your preferred go-to, as it is mine), your job seems the most difficult. You’ve been tasked with, or elected to undertake, an endeavour that involves a breadth of skills that outweigh certain managerial positions at high-paying corporate offices: You’ve undertaken to rally up a group of ner-do-wells, give them a ton of deadly equipment, and are giving them free reign to wreak havoc in a fantasy world of your doing. Not to mention, but you’re going to need to create an environment, both in the real world and in the imaginary one, for them to do it. If this scares you, don’t let it! We’ll go over some of the basics of what you might need, what you don’t need, and more.
A reminder: The list here is curated based on a singular person’s experience, verified by a few other experiences. But that’s all it is: personal experience and preference.
The World and The Notebook It Lives In
Every good storyteller who puts their work out there writes in some capacity. Novelists write, screenwriters write, playwrights write, narrative designers write. You, the Game Master, function as many of these roles combined. You’ll be in charge of creating a world, or perhaps adapting an existing one from a campaign setting. You may elect to create that world you’ve imagined since you were six, or perhaps you picked up Curse of Strahd at your local game store and want to terrorize your friends in Barovia. Either way, your story has to start somewhere.
George R. R. Martin did not build Westeros in a week. C. S. Lewis did not design Narnia overnight. J. R. R. Tolkien did not craft Middle Earth on a napkin one morning during breakfast. That being said, the chances of you having the time of any of these individuals is very slim. If you are electing to write your world from scratch, you will find that it will probably evolve over time. You don’t need a supercontinent before session one. If you have one, good for you! If not, here’s an excellent place to start.
You can go about it one of two ways: plot or place. Starting with a plot means starting with an objective: what do you want your players to accomplish at the end of this story arc? It should be something low-level. Perhaps they save a farmer’s livestock from goblins. Now, we know that there needs to be a farm, and there needs to be a place for the goblins to be residing. From here on out, we build our little village: a farm with sheep and cows, and caverns a few miles out where the goblin caves are. We haven’t even named our location yet, but now we know it exists.
Say you’re more inspired by places. You really want to run a game set in a king’s palace. Even at low levels, this is possible. Now that you have a place, think of its attributes. What actions can take place here? Players can hide behind exquisite furniture. They can mingle at parties. They can sneak in the halls. Perhaps your plot is now a heist. You don’t need a whole kingdom - you have session one, perhaps sessions two and three, under your belt already.
Why am I saying this? Because a lot of first-time game masters lose sleep over not having created a Westeros before even hitting session zero. The point being, you don’t need to. While it is good to have the name of the King, you may find that you are making up his manservant’s name on the spot during gameplay. So point number one: Keep a notebook. It doesn’t have to be a physical notebook. It can be Google Docs or Notion. It can be a reused spiral notebook from high school, or one of those pristine journals you bought at Barnes and Noble with the full intention of using that one time. Either way, you need a place to keep your stuff. Tolkien may have not created Middle Earth on a napkin, but he certainly did keep his notes somewhere.
If you are not building your world from scratch, I will say this: No campaign setting can give you everything, nor should it. Campaign settings have always functioned like textbooks to me: you need to learn the information within them well enough to be able to bring them to the table and work with them. Your notebook is a perfect place to jot down important notes about the setting as you read through the book, especially elements you want to expand upon during the game.
The Plot and The Perfectionism It Doesn’t Need
The mentor who taught me about narrative design and I have a fundamental disagreement: plots vs. Characters. He always believed that characters only existed to serve the plot, while my personal philosophy is that characters make plot. A healthy mix is how I approach tabletop gaming: Game master: your players are the main characters. What happens to them is plot. However, unlike a novelist, you are not in charge of the way they interact with the world.
Let’s take our Farmer and Goblin example: A very small plot, but a plot nonetheless. The premise is that goblins are stealing livestock and it’s ruining the farmer’s business. The plot is how the players go about it. You are setting up a scenario with a well-intentioned outcome. How the players arrive at that outcome is up to them.
When it comes to campaign building, you may have a “big bad” in mind, the source that fuels most of the conflict. Strahd von Zarovich of Curse of Strahd is the end goal, the final boss. But you may not have this big bad in mind when you sit down to start, and that is fine.
Plot crafting is difficult. It takes years to write books (Unless you’re Brandon Sanderson, for some reason). You don’t need a novel’s worth of plot development before you start. You can expand your plot as you play week to week by increasing the scope of conflict: that is, how high up on a power hierarchy are the goals of another person in conflict with the goals of your players. Goblins are pretty low: they want livestock, so they take it. Farmer needs his livestock to live. He offers players some gold to help him. Players align with the farmer’s side of the conflict and they go to defeat the goblins. Higher up the hierarchy ladder, potentially, is a recluse lich who rules over the goblin kingdom. If his goblins are not well fed, they cannot serve him. If his goblins are being killed by a party of dashing adventurers, said recluse lich might garner himself some new enemies. You didn’t need to have that figured out when you started - you can figure it out later.
You’re a game master who is playing with friends whenever you can. You’re not a showrunner. Your plot will change and evolve, and you should let it. As a perfectionist and control freak myself, I understand the horror that that sentence evokes. But you will play week to week, or however frequently, and your ideas will change, and evolve, and grow. Players, we will talk about how to give your game master grace in this later, but game master… just let it happen. I promise that’s how we grow.
PS, when that plot changes, it’s good for you to put that down in your handy dandy notebook.
NPCs, Podcasting, and Picking Your Battles
Alright, it had to come up somewhere: Some of you reading this are probably fans of the Critical Role/Dimension 20 ecosystem of entertainment. Non-player characters have caused certain game masters to lose sleep, knowing that there are people out there whose job it is to perfectly imitate accents, and switch between them, for four hours at a time. The chances of you being a professional working voice actor are pretty slim.
I studied both opera performance and creative writing in college (I have degrees in both). I absolutely do not pretend to know accents I can’t imitate, and most of my players will tell you that I have some pitched variation of Northern/Eastern/Western European accent at any given point in the game, and I’m not very consistent with any of them. I do a great “old man” voice, as well as a pretty killer Elmo impression, but those don’t come handy all that often.
Why am I saying this? As a first time game master, or a first time campaign writer, you may be tempted to flood your sessions with a variety of charact
ers, all with different personalities, roles in their respective community, and more. You may feel tempted to populate your whole starter village. But, you may not have the time to sit there and do all of that. So who do you really need?
Let’s go back to our farmer/goblin example: You need the farmer. The farmer is going to tell you what he needs help with. You may toss in the farmer’s wife, the farmer’s children, but most importantly, your NPCs will meet the farmer. You’ll need a goblin, or goblins, and their motivations, and good reasons for why they did what they did. Unless you plan on having a plot point in between, for this adventure… you really don’t need anyone else.
In a module like Curse of Strahd, the most important NPCs are plot-related. They reveal something to the player party about the situation at hand. Barkeeps
often divulge the latest whispers about the town thieves, or the dissent growing around village leadership. General store owners sell goods. There’s no need to imagine a personality for every NPC sitting in a church pew during a religious service, or every commoner sipping ale at night in a tavern. As a beginner, and even as a seasoned writer, there is no need for it: Tolkien (most likely) did not have a personality in mind for every patron of the Inn of the Prancing Pony.
As you progress, if you find that adding to your fun is being a voice actor, and showing off your skills akin to a Matt Mercer type, then go for it. We’ll talk about this more in the “What’s Stopping You?” Section later.
If you make up a character on the fly during a session, you can add them in to your handy-dandy notebook, so that you always have a place to go back to.
Learn the Rules, You Can’t Break Them Otherwise
For myself, the discourse around learning rules to tabletop games is often riddled with this attitude that most rules are too difficult, and that enjoyers of tabletop games are often too dumb to learn them. While this is definitely untrue, and disempowering at best, my biggest piece of advice is to speak to your players and discuss why you’re all sitting down to play, and what enjoyment you hope to get from the experience. There are rules systems for players with different preferences of gaming. If you’re a lover of numbers and mechanics, you may elect to play a more convoluted system, because that’s fun for you. If you’re more preoccupied with the storytelling and community aspect of a tabletop game, you may select a system that allows for more freedom and flexibility with the rules. The majority of you reading are most likely picking up Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, which is a decent mix of both. Regardless of what you end up picking, it is imperative you learn the rules.
Players, if you haven’t skipped to the player system, I will reiterate this there too: everyone should be learning the rules. Game master, you may feel the most pressure to learn the rules the best, but the truth is, someone in your player party may learn them better than you. You are not a console, you do not exist to simply make the game mechanics function. While it is important you understand the rule system in order to give the plot a vehicle, it’s alright to forget the rules and have to look them up, or play wrong for a while before realizing you were playing wrong. Unlike a video game, there is no code that freezes, or prevents you from functioning, if you make a mistake.
Much like improvising on an instrument, a higher understanding of the rules allows you to ebb and flow with them: knowing where you can take creative liberties with the rules allows for a different experience. However, when you go to sit down to play, you may not remember everything, and no guilt should be felt for it. Perhaps print out a rules cheat sheet or write down the key mechanics in that notebook of yours. Regardless: let go of the guilt. Once again, I promise you, it’s easier said than done for some of us.
Starter Materials Beyond the Handy Dandy Notebook
It may be overwhelming to start gathering materials, thinking you need maps and minis and more before you even sit down at your first session. While all of those accessories may make it easier to play, there is no need to shell out hundreds of dollars to have a good time at the table. You already have your notebook (or laptop, or phone, or looseleaf papers, or even your napkin) on you with your basics. You might want a pen or pencil to accompany that notebook for the game.
As the game master, if your game system calls for a Game Master’s Screen, I advise you get one. It can be as simple as using Manila folders to create a barrier between yourself and your players, or you can buy one of the many available ones. This allows you to manage your notes, and your dice rolls, in secret.
Of course, most game systems have a gaming component, and for most of those systems, that component is dice. Obviously, get the tools you need to play. For Dungeons and Dragons, that’s a set of polyhedral dice. For a World of Darkness game, that tends to be a collection of d10s and percentile dice. You and your players will need that because otherwise, how would you play?
As you go on, you might find yourself collecting more: more dice, more miniatures, more battle maps. This is all fine and dandy: just know that you should not break your bank to start having a fun time.
Note: Functionality & intentionality versus consumerism: As someone who owns a plethora of tabletop gaming accessories, and someone who makes them, I try to be very intentional with what I purchase. I happily support smaller makers, such as those who create notebooks for games organization, other dice, dice accessories, and more. There is a lot of pressure, especially from larger companies, that certain accessories will make the gaming experience better. While there are certainly enhancers (I love many of my accessories), the core of your gameplay comes from being at the table with your friends. No amount of accessories will make up for a poor table dynamic.
Organizing a Session Zero
I highly recommend a session zero prior to beginning play. This is a great time for your party to meet in a gaming context without the pressures of beginning gameplay. I think of it much like a study social, perhaps because I like to think of tabletop gaming in an academic context (though nobody else needs to think of it the same way). You get together, grab some snacks, and you can bring up game themes and ideas with your players. A session zero is also a popular time for your players to create their characters - this way, you form a party as a collaborative effort and begin the storytelling process prior to even opening up with a dice roll. A party of characters should want to be around one another, should understand the boundaries of other players, and their characters, and should generally want to be adventuring together.
Setting campaign themes and rules helps players guide their character creation to suit the story. If your world does not have highly advanced technology, you, the DM, can put limits on what kind of classes you have in your world, or how that class interacts with the environment. Or, a player can inform you of what story a character would have if they are “out of place” in that world. Point being is that collaborative storytelling begins at session zero.
It is also important to establish player boundaries and general expectations. Player boundaries spell out what each player, and what the game master, are comfortable with in gameplay, and how to address the situation when those boundaries are crossed. For example, I have explicit boundaries in my games surrounding sexual encounters, because as the game master, I have no desire to role play certain situations, or answer to them. My players know that approaching an NPC with explicitly sexual desires would be to cross a boundary of mine. The same would happen if a player expressed to me that they do not want their character placed in a certain situation, and if I were to cross that line. It is unacceptable either way.
Session zero helps to get this all out of the way. It cannot help prepare for everything that happens during a campaign, but it helps to set ground rules. I would highly recommend setting one up.
A lot has been said here about Game Masters, but worry not players - check back in a few weeks for part II where I will go over first campaigns for players!