So you want to begin a new campaign, in a new world? Here is how to get started the Dead Simple way with almost no preparation whatsoever. It is not half as scary as it sounds, nor is there any need to create massive maps, populate them with nations, cities and peoples, design complex pantheons and long-winded histories.
One of the delights of running a campaign from scratch is that you can adapt and create the world around the players, based upon their characters’ actions and the players’ comments and perceptions.
You start with a table in the corner of a tavern and work your way out from there as the players’ characters explore their environs, go on adventures, and then weave a tale around them.
so, let the players ask questions about the Tavern; What is it called? Who runs it? Is it busy? What is the name of the Best Bitter? Take quick and dirty notes of your answers.
As they leave the Tavern you describe the street outside, that street leads to another and a village or town is born. Don’t name the street or the settlement it unless they ask. If they do then take notes.
They want to visit a smith to get kit, a stable to buy or hire horses, and grocer to get provisions, then off to the main gate to begin their adventure. If they ask the names of the people they meet, then tell them. Get used to doing names and physical descriptions on the fly but make a note of them as you go.
One trick I learned long ago about making up NPC names is to imagine what sort of territory you want the players to explore, then pick a similar region in the real world and use the common names from that area as your base stock. You can still throw in the odd strange name as these might be foreigners or immigrants. Common people tend to have simple names and no surnames. They are often known by their profession or have nicknames. The more wealthy the NPC the more complex their name and they might have a surname or house name.
If one of the players wants to write up their adventures, then encourage them to do so and if their memory of the smith is different to yours, then change yours. This encourages their engagement in the game, and reinforces the fact that your world is drawn from their perceptions of it.
So, they have reached the gate. Hopefully, their mysterious patron in the tavern will have given them some directions. For example: take the south road for half a day until you see some gallows, then turn left into the woods. Follow the path through the woods until you reach the ruined tower on the hill. Maps are rare and precious things, and only one in a thousand might have ever seen one. Medieval people were used to giving and receiving simple directions.
Give them some basic descriptions of the land they travel through, but do not descend into purple prose, you do not need to compete with Tolkien. If they ask for a bit more then add to it. There is little need to plan this in advance, just draw upon your own experiences. Consider that most people measured distances in the time it took to cover them, and the difficulty of the terrain they must cross. It’s half a day by horse or one day on foot sir. Take notes.
Throw in a couple of challenges along the way. Make at least one a physical challenge such as the bridge is down and the stream is a raging torrent, how do you cross? The other could be an opportunity for roleplay or combat. The elves who live in the woods want a good reason to let you pass through their territory, or a band of brigands do not want anyone else to get to the ruined tower before them.
So, each of the elements above are expanding the environment. There is; a road, where does it go?; a stream and a broken bridge; who are these elves?; are the brigands well known and have prices on their heads? Take notes.
By the end of the first session, you will have notes on the tavern, the village or town, some of its inhabitants, the road south, and some of the people out there. The players will have led the exploration of all this and helped you create the first chapter of your campaign. You will have a record of everything they know about your world.
Many players like to write a little background for their characters. I always encourage this but advise them to keep it short and simple. In the past I have experimented with asking them to answer six or seven questions, each one with a single sentence. These can be brilliant for expanding your world.
For example: whom do you worship? Tell them they can name the deity themselves and must describe what the deity covers. Weave these little details into your new world, and later try to put a few into their adventures.
Remember that you are creating a story with them, not an entire world… yet.
Once the session is over sort your notes. I know some GMs who write each thing on a Post-it Note, which they stick to the back of their GM’s Shield, then only afterwards commit it to paper. Others who use lever arch files divided into sections or index cards (which is what I used to do).
The important thing is to begin to create a level of consistency in your new world.
Personally, I use Microsoft One Note, which is like a digital lever arch file, with one page for each location and sub-pages for specific buildings/settings, NPCs, interactions with players etc.
Stuff the players know I put in one colour text and stuff they don’t yet I put in another.
For example: They have met the Town Smith.
What they know is: they asked his name and I called him ‘Charlie’. They bought a list of stuff, and it cost a little more than that in the rules.
What they don’t know is: that he has sold them sub-standard gear for twice what it is actually worth. This may later come apparent if they decide to use an iron spike to hold a rope for climbing and it snaps under the fighter’s weight. Cue an angry discussion with the smith when they get back.
One Note is great as it puts all this information on my laptop that I use to GM from. I do have a hankering to return to index cards though.
The Power of Images
One of the things that I like to do when I have downtime is to peruse image sites like Instagram and Pinterest. You would be amazed at the tens of thousands of images suitable for use in Fantasy roleplaying games.
There are beautiful pictures of; characters and NPCs of every gender, class and race; settings such as towns, dungeons, and wilderness areas; every well-known monster and as many new and unique ones too, and; mounts, vehicles, equipment, magic items etc.
Every image that I think is useful I snip, give it an appropriate name, and store in a series of themed folders. If the artist’s name is available, I add that to the image name as I believe in attribution. For some of the artists I really like I try to fund them through their Patreon pages. Before you wonder how much that costs, I spend about $10 per month on half a dozen artists work.
Then, during the game, I can conjure up these images to give the players a view of what I am describing.
With our retreat to VTTs during these trying times, many of us have come to value the many location and battle maps we can import to our desktops. We have become used to creating tokens for characters, NPCs, monsters, and items. This art repository I have created acts as my library for these.