Technically the first “session” in my nine-part mini RPG campaign template, I like to call this part “Session 0“: it doesn’t actually involve running the game yet, but it does entail everything you need to get started. This post covers the things you as the GM will be facilitating the first time you gather all the players in one place, as well as the things you’ll want to prepare ahead of time. Those things are the hook, the cast of characters, the character backstories and/or individual quests, and the inciting incident.
You might have an existing adventure outline in mind that you’re adapting to a nine-part mini-campaign template, or perhaps this is the first you’re thinking about the adventure’s storyline.
In one or two sentences, identify the main problem the PCs have to solve and what is at stake if they fail. This is your premise, the dramatic question at the heart of the mini campaign. You can also identify the actors on both sides and other setting-specific details, including maguffins and the inciting incident (more on that later).
Example: When [event that throws the world out balance happens], will a group of [adjective] [noun] be able to [adverb] [verb] the [noun] to/from/at/in [place] before the [villain] [villain’s objective]?
As applied to thirty years of roleplaying game adventures:
Once you’ve come up with your hook, make sure you communicate it to your players at the beginning of session 0, or even before (such as in an email to your group that relays the date, time, and place for session 0). You might preface it with some information like system and setting if you’re playing with experienced roleplayers, otherwise you could use it to kick off the conversation. There’s a fine line between not spoiling the adventure and ensuring that you don’t give the players some nasty surprises when you run something they didn’t expect. You might pose the premise like this:
I am willing to convey more information in the second example because the PCs start out as prisoners and that could be considered harder than the average starting premise. Therefore, I want to set up that expectation well in advance so they don’t feel like I cheated them out of special weapons or armor they made a point of buying but don’t have access to in the beginning.
It’s ultimately up to you to decide how much information you want to give out up front, but I would say that if nothing else, you should at least give the players a solid idea of your intended tone, maturity rating, and level of comedy of the mini-campaign you intend to run so. There are some excellent tools (Creating a Social Contract and the Same Page Tool) out there that will guide you through expectation-setting in general, so I would recommend you check them out and adapt them as you feel is appropriate.
Once you’ve armed them with the premise, the players can begin to think about the type of character they would want to play through that storyline. For example, one player thinks that a demon-hunting avenging paladin would be especially apt for the Out of the Abyss campaign, while another player has always wanted to play a dwarf and thinks that an underdark adventure is the perfect opportunity to do so.
If you’re going to let players make their own characters, now’s the time to break out the rulebooks and character sheets and let them get to it. You should inform them of any thematic or mechanical restrictions you want to enforce to preserve the campaign’s flavor (e.g. “you should all be heroic characters who will cooperate with other adventurers” or “there should be no [race]/[class]/[X domains] in this game because of the setting”). This is a step during which the Same Page Tool and the social contract will come in handy again. The rest of the session should be a natural dialog between the GM and players about what types of characters would be fun to play, fit within the world, and fit well with each other.
On the other hand, if you have particularly new players or if you’re trying to replicate the cast of a book/TV show/movie, pre-generated characters could be created by the GM beforehand and then distributed to the players during session 0. As the GM, you’ll want to try to highlight some of the staples of the genre or archetypes of the system, as well as create characters that fit within your tonal, rating, and hilarity expectations for the mini-campaign. At the same time, you should try to feature different character elements that appeal to different types of people. You can look at the player types from Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering or even consult the gamemaster’s reference material from the system you intend to run, which is liable to discuss different playstyles as they relate to the system in question.
When I ran “Firewing Peak,” I wanted to showcase the different types of archetypes available to play in Dungeons & Dragons, so I included one example of each race and each class for them to choose from. In some cases, I went with iconics, such as the halfling rogue, but in other cases I liked offering unusual combinations, such as a dragonborn sorcerer. Sometimes it can be the smaller details that cause players to gravitate to one pre-gen over another, so if you emphasis typical/tradition traits on some characters sheets and unusual/remarkable traits on others, you can appeal to “conservative” and “melodramatic” players alike.
If you’re going to be using pre-generated characters, this is your chance to select the makeup of the party and give them each desires, fears, strengths, weaknesses, and so on that tie directly or indirectly into the dramatic question. If the players are making their own characters, now is the time for them to determine their own backstory, but you can still have them choose or randomly roll for a personal quest devised by you that quickly engages them with the premise. These personal quests will help you in your planning for Sessions 3 through 7: the Rising Action of your mini RPG campaign.
For my learn-to-play Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition adventure, “Firewing Peak,” I printed out the following personal goals and cut them up into slips of paper the players could keep close to their character sheets:
Each of these side quests ties into the events of the adventure itself: dragon cults, the mayor’s daughter, treasure hoards, unnatural beasts, and a previous adventuring party are all some of the reveals/obstacles that the PCs encounter as they delve the dungeon.
Finally, you should let the players ask you questions about what kinds of details their character would know about the inciting incident, or the event that throws the world out balance. This inciting incident is the reason behind the event that the adventurers will be called upon for help with or will ultimately be forced to react to.
To continue using the above examples, in “Firewing Peak” the adventure begins because the evil dragon cult has determined that their dracolich master’s phylactery is in fact the family heirloom currently possessed by the mayor’s daughter, and when they send the kobolds to Kindleflint to recover it, the PCs are forced to get involved. In this case, the player characters are ignorant of this background detail and I’m unable to give them much information without spoiling the mystery, but I can at least tell them that they don’t know why the kobolds are attacking or why they’ve kidnapped Kinnebeth and taken her up the mountain to Firewing Peak.
In Out of the Abyss, (WARNING: Spoilers for R. A. Salvatore’s Archmage! Highlight to read) the archmage Gromph Baenrae opens a portal that allows the Demon Lords of the Abyss into the underdark as a reaction to his sister’s, Matron Qunethel Baenrae’s, schemes. It turns out that Lolth herself indirectly seeded this idea to Gromph in order to vacate the Demon Lords from their usual domains and give herself a chance to take them over. The PCs wouldn’t be aware of those precise details, but some of them fought in the Battle for Gauntlgrym and would therefore know that the recently revived King Bruenor Battlehammer kicked the drow out of that ancient city. Though I won’t make the connection explicit, it is actually the reaction of the drow to that defeat that causes the threat the PCs will ultimately be facing.
In some cases, like for the “Champion of the Samurai” L5R scenario, you can go into great detail about the nature of the Topaz Champion, the town of Tsuma where it is held, and so on, but in more mystery-based campaigns you can instead seed in hints that might not seem meaningful in the short term but whose significance is revealed during the course of the mini-campaign itself. You should have a better idea of what all you want to foreshadow or hint at in the preparatory session once you’ve mapped out the remaining eight sessions.
With those last questions answered, your party should be ready to break and reconvene for Session 1: The Key Event/Call to Adventure. If you have enough time left in your evening, you might even jump straight into the action! Otherwise, waiting a week can give your party additional time to make and tweak their characters or to read up on the system’s rules if there are any subsystems their characters are going to interact with heavily. But at least you’ve laid a solid foundation for your mini-campaign in Session 0: The Hook and Setup.