I spend time on the DM’s Academy Subreddit and lots of folks ask questions about how to start a game. This is very much inspired by the Situation model I learned through Burning Wheel and was also championed on the Alexandrian in his blog post, Don’t Prep Plots.
Here’s one take on it.
Tell the players what the game is going to be about.
You’ve all learned that the Iron Lich is trying to take over the world with their manufacturing tombs.
Ask them to make characters who are bound to that plot.
I was the apprentice of the Iron Lich when they were mortal.
I’m a paladin who is sworn to destroy all undead.
I’m an elf ranger sent by the queen so the Iron Lich’s manufacturing tombs don’t destroy the forest.
During character creation, ask questions. Make shit up together. Write down names. The DM role is important during character creation. Help the players flesh out their characters and use this as an opportunity to flesh out the world. I am very open to learning about the world at this point and want player ideas about the part of the world where their character comes from and how the Iron Lich damaged that community. Through character creation I want to grow the antagonist and the world the antagonist threatens. There will still be plenty of blank space on the map and mysteries to learn in play.
I’m not precious about timelines or vague ideas about the Iron Lich. I don’t want to get rid of the main concept, “Industrialized Undead Wizard,” and don’t want to play in a tone that doesn’t work for me. If a player makes a Halfling named Dildo Haggus, I’m going to speak up and say that joke characters don’t fit. But as above, if my ideas about the Iron Lich said that they became a Lich three thousand years ago, I’m going to re-think that because having a wizard who was the Iron Lich’s apprentice when they were mortal is just so damned cool. If the Iron Lich being three thousand years old is key to the concept, maybe talk to the player about having a character who had been tossed outside of time in a void prison and just got out.
Once the characters are made give them a few choices that seem interesting to you. I like to do this the week before we play, so I have time to prep and daydream.
Do you all want to look into the devil-lich’s mountain lair where the Iron Necromancer became the Iron Lich or scout out the manufacturing tombs where caravans have gone missing or look into the duke’s counselor who is said to be a necromancer?
There’s no WRONG answer but sure, clocks will be ticking and things will change based on their choices. Also, maybe they have another idea or the first adventure becomes very clear during character creation. That is cool. Give yourself some time to prep but don’t over-prep.
The examples above were written quickly but looking them over, they feel like different kinds of adventures. The Devil-Lich’s Lair feels like a dungeon crawl. The Manufacturing Tombs is more stealthy and sneaky but also a bit dungeon crawlish. The duke’s counselor is very political, rooting out spies and cultists in the duke’s court. Each one would mean fleshing out a different part of the world.
Nothing about any of this is original. I don’t get an eff about originality. The game will become something original once out friends interact with all this stuff when we come together at the table.
I put together the tools I’ve worked on here in the past few years in a Medium article. If you liked this, you might like those articles too.
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