Here’s a stripped down, genre-less skeleton of my notes and planning processes for running the first scenario of a new campaign.
Comfort & Safety
I usually lead with something like, “This is a new thing for a lot of us here, and it can feel goofy and awkward, so please only do what you feel comfortable doing. We can take breaks whenever you feel like it, and if things get uncomfortable, feel free to let us know, to message me privately, tell me later, or whatever method works for you, and we’ll avoid doing that in the future. To start with, I want to keep this game PG-13. We can also change that as needed. But for instance, there won’t be any [blank]* in these games.”
* For me, this is “sexual violence and violence against domestic animals.” And for more information, here’s an extensive TTRPG Safety Toolkit.
Character & Setting Introduction
Once characters are made, ask the players to introduce their character by name, look, and vibe/specialty. (A lot of times, the things players highlight here are either things they’re really excited about or things they haven’t quite wrapped their brains around. Regardless, it’s good stuff to remember and try to bring back later.)
Describe [starting location], possibly using photo reference or referring to some shared pop culture. If people ask questions about the place, make something up* or turn the question back on them. Write down whatever they make up.
Ask the players what their characters do on a given morning/afternoon/night here. They might ask questions (“Is there a blacksmith?”); again, answer or let them answer. People can totally pass on answering this if they’re not sure.
I try to work in a few rolls here so that people can start getting a handle on the mechanics in a low-stakes environment. If someone says they’re at a bar, I’ll ask if they want to roll to play a game of pool or darts or whatever. If they say they’re working hard at a job, ask for some sort of endurance or health roll to see how tired they are after work.
I usually don’t take away hit points or give other negative consequences here. The range of results is mostly like, “you do something slightly below average” to “you do something really impressive.” This is mostly to get people thinking about what to roll and when they might roll it. It’s also a time for potential questions and confusion to pop up, and we can answer those questions outside of a high-stakes scenario.
* Here’s where a list of names or whatever comes in handy if you (like me) aren’t good at making them up. It took me a while to learn what I could make up on the spot and what I struggled with.
On Answering Questions & Saying Yes
When someone asks me a question like “Is there a blacksmith?” they usually want an affirmative answer, and it’s often tied to their character’s past or vibe. So I usually try to say something like, “Yeah, absolutely; would your character already know them?”
When I ask players to name a character or place, they’ll sometimes say something that doesn’t quite gel with how I imagine the world. Like, if I ask them who the blacksmith is and they say, “His name is Big-Butt Johnson,” that doesn’t always work? (Sometimes Big-Butt Johnson absolutely works.) When this happens, I try to say things like, “He definitely has a big butt, but I don’t know if he’d advertise it like that because of [something we’ve already established about the world]. Maybe there’s a name with the same vibe that we could go with instead?”
Giving the Mission
The mission I have in mind starts as a simple fetch quest. [starting location] is short on [a semi-rare resource]. The resource should be something that’s easy for anyone to gather; the difficulty comes in its rarity and in getting to where it is. Examples:
- crystal used for magic
- plant used for medicine
- anything used for fuel
- item for a special rite
If a player introduced a friend or acquaintance who might need this, I try to have that NPC give the mission* to further cement the relationship and have a reason to have that NPC show up again. Alternately, that friend could point the players to a new NPC who has this need, maybe because they want to help their buddy (the PC) out with getting a job.
* I try to have most mission-givers be kind, transparent, and forthright, at least early on in a campaign. I hate the trope of someone tricking the PCs into helping them do evil; it’s like punishing them for being trusting and playing the game.
Sometimes I’ll give the players the option to bring along a guide. I make sure to note that the guide is no good at anything the PCs can do; their skill lies in knowing the general route and in identifying the quest item.
A few reasons for doing this:
- enriches the world by adding a new character/point-of-view
- can ask the players questions based on things happening in the game
- can give in-game answers for questions the PCs might have about the world
- gives me a voice for affirming PC plans*
* With new players or groups who haven’t gelled, I often see people spinning their wheels, coming up with imagined problems for any plan put forward. A guide can say, “I think that’s a great plan; [thing you’re worrying about] is really unlikely.” Alternately, if they’re worrying about something that you’ve planned for, the guide can say, “That’s a real worry; I’ve heard of similar things happening.”
On Making NPCs
I usually try not to go too deep on developing characters before the game. Maybe a desire (fame, money, safety, excitement), a big life event that informs their philosophy (having a child, being in a war, becoming a professor), and a general demeanor (nervous, bold, super-chill). I might “cast” them as a real-life actor or write down a single line of dialogue that helps me remember the rhythms of their speech.
Traveling to the Item
Once the characters feel ready to go, there’s some travel time. I usually try to have travel take two units of [time]: they travel a bit, they rest, and then they travel again and reach their destination.
In that first unit of travel, I’ll describe the landscape and ask if any of the characters have traveled here before (using the guide if they brought one). Ask why, when, etc.
Then it’s time for some medium-stakes rolls. Maybe it’s a roll to perceive things, to watch their camp, to keep quiet, etc. It changes based on the scenario. There are a few bands of success here.
If the roll is really bad, they’re ambushed by something dangerous! It’s not a fatal encounter, but it’s more complicated than the initial rolls. This is a chance to learn the main mechanics of the game (usually combat). I try in general not to have combat be a back-and-forth exchange of blows; either the enemy should have some means of complicating it* (like a frog with a giant tongue that can immobilize people) or the landscape can be interacted with (bogs to sink into, trees to hide behind, etc).
If the roll isn’t terrible or awesome, the PCs see the danger/complication from a ways off, but they’re also spotted/endangered. This gives them a little time to plan. Maybe they’ll jump to fighting, or maybe they’ll try to negotiate or run away. I try to say yes to whatever they mention as a plan and then tell them what kind of rolls they’d be looking at or their chances of success. I make it clear that they only have a bit of time to plan, so they should come to agreement. Again, the guide might be useful here.
The PCs spot the danger without being spotted. They can engage with a significant boost, try to sneak by, try to trick them, etc.
* I try to keep the mechanics for these complications really simple, usually involving a single roll or no roll at all. I’ve definitely fallen into the trap of making really difficult minigames for simple things like this; they take up a lot of time yet only offer a “success” or “fail” end state. Wasn’t worth it.
This whole encounter is meant to up the stakes a little bit; PCs will probably lose hit points or resources, so they’ll get to engage with that side of the rules more. Planning this encounter also teaches me the rules; do I have to learn about XP budgets? rules for escaping immobilization? speed and difficult terrain?
After the first unit of travel, everyone gets a chance to rest. We learn how rest and recovery works in the game. Maybe people want to keep watch, so we learn that too. If I have a guide NPC, I have them ask about the encounter (“Is that your first fight?”) or how they feel about wherever they’re resting. Maybe I’ll use it to reveal a bit about the NPC: “I used to go camping with my mom before I moved so far away from her. Are you all close to your parents?” Or whatever.
Travel Part Two
After resting, I let them know that they’ll be reaching their destination after a bit more travel. Do they want to prepare anything? Maybe they’ll want to scout ahead, investigate, ask more questions. This is a good way to come up with things that can signal what they’re about to encounter: tracks, warning signs, someone fleeing what they’re heading toward. I don’t put random/smaller encounters here because I don’t want to draw drama away from what’s coming.
Arrival & Complication
They see the thing they were sent to get! Or see definite signs of it. However, it’s already in use or in danger of being used up by someone else. Describe the basics; the PCs might want to roll to investigate more, so make sure you have a few details that are harder to discern.
Eventually, either they’ll have a plan and head in…or they’ve just sat there a long time staring, so someone comes up to them and asks who they are and what they’re doing.
There is a faction in place that’s using the item pretty much exactly the way the PCs want to use it. I try to make it clear that there are multiple solutions here. Sure, they could charge in and get the thing, fighting or running away as they do. But they can also talk, sneak, or anything else. (Shades of the travel encounter here.) To me, this is the “juice” of RPGs; it’s doing what videogames are worse at.
Developing the Faction
For the people that have control of the object the PCs seek, I try to do a few things.
- They’re a small faction, maybe the size of the PC party or a bit bigger. This makes them easy to “see” all at once; the PCs aren’t trying to figure out a whole city or species.
- They’re expressly not evil. They might not be kind or welcoming (although making them so can be a fun twist), but they aren’t mindlessly bad.
- There are factions within the faction. For instance, one of them might be interested in trying to share the resource, but if they do, another of them gets mad and tries to escalate because they think it’s a “finders, keepers” situation.
Give Problems, Not Solutions
At this point, I consider my planning over and done with. I don’t create an easy way to figure this out. I might try to imagine possibilities (the PCs might fight, steal, negotiate) and develop hazy reactions to those possibilities, but here’s where PCs inevitably surprise me, coming up with solutions I never imagined, arguing with each other, and doing bold and stupid shit.
I do try to keep a few tenets in mind:
- These NPCs should monologue! Don’t hide their views from the PCs behind a roll. This is a chance to show the PCs who else lives in this world.
- These NPCs are dynamic. If the PCs offer them good deals, they can change their minds, and if the PCs insult them, things can get rowdy.
- These NPCs can come back. If the PCs ruin their lives, they should run off and return with a vengeance. And if the PCs help them, they can come back with thanks, spread their good name, and come to them with problems to solve (since the PCs were so brilliant and nice the first time around, etc).
I try to develop these NPCs the most. I make sure they all have desires, quirks, and full stats, because I never know how the PCs will try to interact with them.
(There’s a 50% chance they’ll try to adopt a faction member into the party.)
Eventually, the PCs will probably want to return home. Maybe they have the thing they were sent for, in which case they probably get a reward.
If they don’t have the thing (either because of mercy to the faction or bad rolls), I try to make it clear that this isn’t a fail state. We’re still playing the game, changing the world, enacting our characters, and hopefully having fun.
- Maybe they can go home and tell the story of their failure, and the questgiver will understand and want to try a new approach, possibly with higher stakes.
- Maybe they’ll go home and tell of their mercy, and some jerks will declare they’re going to succeed where the PCs failed, and now the PCs have enemies.
- Maybe the faction will reward the PCs for not taking the item, and the PCs then have to lie or keep the faction hidden. They might also get a clue to where to find another one of the items, but it’s harder to get.
And that’s it! “Thanks for playing,” I tell my players. “See you next time, where maybe we’ll [blank]” (find out what happened to a favorite NPC, do that goofy thing someone joked about doing, etc).
And that’s it! Thanks for reading. There’s a Google Doc version of this if you want to make a copy and fill in your setting’s info. If you want to see how I fill this in for myself, you can check out my itch.io page, where there are free samples of my adventure writing as well as a ton of paid content.