Hello and welcome back to Learn From My Mistakes; the series where I explain how to not be like me. I just recently started a new campaign for the first time in six months and after a very rocky and slow opening, I was finally able to get back into the groove of things. Starting a campaign is much harder than I remembered and made me realize that the game is easy once you have something to work with, but until then you are basically starting from nothing. Getting past this barrier, and into the meat of the game is important for planning and improvisation, and makes everything go by so much smoother.
When I went into my first session this past week for this new campaign I felt ready for it. We had an awesome world that we built using Microscope and all of the characters seemed really unique and personal. All I had to do was give my players a hook, and off we would go! Of course, it wasn’t as simple as that, and the beginning of the session was an unintentional slog as my players slowly obtained the hook, and bumbled their way forward. It took a good 30-60 minutes before anything interesting started to happen. What went wrong, and how could I have gone about fixing it?
In Media Res
Starting off this campaign I decided to keep things simple and I allowed the players to choose from one of three plot hooks on a billboard in the back of a tavern. They would get in, get out, and be on with the mission. What happened, however, was I spent a lot of unnescary detail on the room and how the players would go to retrieve the plot hook. After a few pointless die rolls, and waiting for the players to choose we finally had an adventure, and they, fortunately, chose the hook I wanted them to choose in the first place. A lot of time in this scene was spent with the players introducing themselves, and doing aimless things until the real adventure began.
Instead what I could have done is start them In Media Res. In Media Res basically means “starting in the middle”. In the case of storytelling, starting in the middle is a technique used to immediately hook the audience, and have them asking questions that will be answered as soon as the current scene is played out. Doing this can create tension from the very beginning, and can be a fun and explosive way to start a Dnd campaign.
In the case of my campaign, if I had to chose to start In Media Res instead of putting all of that extraneous stuff in at the beginning we would have been able to immediately start with the fun part, and work out all of the other minor things once everyone had been hooked. Instead, we had to invest an hours worth of time that ultimately ended up being pointless when we could have cut straight to the meat and potatoes of the session. In Media Res can also serve as a great opportunity to introduce characters and build party cohesion as these strangers all have to work together to come out on top. This gets around the problem of trust issues that many PC’s seem to have at the beginning of many campaigns.
Don’t Want In Media Res?
Not every campaign wants In Media Res. That’s totally acceptable, and in many cases, makes a lot of sense. A campaign all about political subterfuge in the upper courts wouldn’t want to set its tone with a high stakes battle involving some monsters from the woods. The way you start the campaign will determine the tone it takes and In Media Res may not work for what you have in mind. If that is the case, there are plenty of other ways to start a campaign while still preventing it from becoming a snoozefest for the first half hour.
One method I like to use is to start with the assumption that the party already knows each other. Doing this ensures that everyone gets along, and we don’t have any characters walk away from the party after one adventure because realistically it doesn’t make sense to spend every waking moment with them after killing some rats. This method also works great for hooking the entire party into something, because as long as one person is interested than the whole party feels compelled to go, instead of somebody staying behind not wanting to risk their neck for strangers.
Another tactic I like to employ is Preparing World, Not Plot. This is something I like to use for every session, but is especially important in the first one. With nothing to go off of yet, it can be hard to start a campaign. For the very first session I like to start very small, one town with no more than 50 people. Keeping things simple not only makes my life easier as the DM but also is much less intimidating and prevents the players from falling into Choice Paralysis when they have too many options. Preparing a super detailed town also helps to make the players feel like they are in a real world, instead of some 2-dimensional backdrop that is simply there to serve the action of the game.
Starting a campaign is harder than it looks, and can be intimidating to those who have never done it before. Keeping everything moving along when you have nothing to work with is a challenge, and can catch people in a trap where they wait around until something interesting finally happens. Campaigns don’t have to be dull and uninteresting at the beginning! Starting a campaign In Media Res, or with an adequately prepared location can make all the difference. Thank you for reading, and have a great week and an amazing Tuesday!
One thought on “Learn From My Mistakes: Issue 06 “How to Start a Campaign””
Great advice. I’ve never heard of In Media Res, although the concept makes perfect sense. Proof you learn something new everyday 🙂