This post is the last in a series on creating a “homebrew” setting for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Readers seeking to review the series in order may wish to review Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV before continuing here.
By this point in the setting design process, the dungeon master (DM) has enough background material to portray a convincing game world to the players. The only task remaining before play can begin is to help the players find a starting place in that world.
At the start of what this series calls “the example campaign,” this task was completed by having the first game session of the campaign devoted exclusively to the task of character generation and character background. It may seem like a full session is far too much time to allocate to the task, as many games place little or no emphasis on character background, but the time invested pays grand dividends in player involvement.
Begin the character background session with a brief meeting with all players, during which you provide an overview of the campaign themes, show or distribute copies of the regional map, briefly outline the region’s history and describe, in general terms, what ongoing conflicts exist in the area.
After this overview, your role shifts to one of support, as the players must now begin creating interconnected character backgrounds for their characters. These backgrounds can be unusually detailed, as your notes are filled with current place names, prominent non-player characters (NPCs), general ideas about trade routes, imports and exports, and rich history filled with triumphs and tragedies that can intersect with the early lives of the heroes.
You may need to make some suggestions about character races or classes, which settlements might make appropriate home towns for some heroes, or what edicts or expectations are present for paladins, clerics, wizards or any other character who acts as a member of an order or academy. But after a short while, the players will probably begin building on each other’s backgrounds in short order.
For the example campaign, it took three hours to create and generate interconnected backgrounds for six characters.
When the players are finished with their character backgrounds, play can begin.
Tracking the Growth of a Campaign
There is, however, an ongoing task the DM must perform in order to maintain the richness of the homebrew campaign: constant record-keeping. While every campaign requires the DM to record quest and experience point awards, and sometimes treasure gained, this sort of campaign requires a higher level of record-keeping. Every time the heroes visit a village, record its name, the names of the NPCs encountered there, and the events that transpired. Make notes of every rumor the heroes investigate, every NPC they offend and how, every friend they make and why.
Each note taken provides more resources for future adventures, since old friends and enemies will certainly return during the game. The notes also provide internal consistency for the campaign; if the heroes meet Bandor the innkeeper at the Rusty Dwarf Inn, the players will expect to see Bandor during future visits. If they don’t, it will be obvious that something happened to him, or that the DM made a mistake that ruined suspension of disbelief.
There are as many ways of tracking this ever-increasing pile of information as there are DMs, but one efficient way involves using computer outlining software. One free version used by this author is Keynote; although this freeware is no longer supported, it is as robust as anything else out there, and this writer has had no problems with its functioning during the past year.
Regardless of the outlining software used, these sorts of programs are very memory-efficient, and can be added and updated easily (even during a session, if the DM uses a lap-top computer during play).
Of course, the campaign outline can (and should) contain more information than is immediately available to the players. Whenever inspiration strikes, there’s usually a place for it the outline, even if it’s on a page marked “cool ideas for villains” or “neat places for combat.”
Lastly, the outline will allow the DM to see where some areas of the campaign are underdeveloped. If the DM plans to send the heroes into the Dunmarshes in a few levels, he or she can tell at a glance if more background information is needed.