The Set Piece – Dungeons and Dragons Campaign Advice Part 4

In my first installment for this series I mentioned the importance of beginning with the end in mind and having a “north star” campaign goal for the party. In the piece I mentioned it being valid to either frontload the party with that end goal in a Session 0 before actual play begins or to do so in media res. I’m going to make the case for my preferred option: the latter.

My general tempo for this is 2-3 sessions into actual play. I like giving the new party a sense of the world and some easy starter quests where we can get to know each others’ styles, and they can start to lay the road map for their characters. The world may already begin with a conflict front and center: a foreign army is at the border, the emperor of a conquering nation is visiting for a diplomatic summit, a foreign guild has stolen an important item, etc.

The party can try to elevate themselves into these conflicts, or they can simply go after more immediate or easily accessible quests: a troll is attacking livestock, an engineer disappeared with important blueprints, and temple basement is overrun with monsters. However I like the twist and reaction of the third session set piece.

The Emperor is assassinate publicly upon entering the city, a tarrasque appears and demolishes the foreign army, etc. The reason for this is twofold. First, it’s a fun surprise. It creates dramatic tension just when the party feels settled in and understands the shape of the world for them to have to reshape the world in a major way. It creates an immersion and likeness to the world and NPCs within it.

Secondly, it allows for you to force the players to react in character to this overwhelming change. Especially if its far out of their league, they have to consider their own survival but also understand the danger and threat through that sympathetic link. “We’re level 2! We can’t possibly fight that now!” Then the tie back to the previous advice: where do you want to go, what do you want to do? When the dust settles, they have a sense of what their characters’ goals were before the cataclysm and that clarifies what their goals and reaction should be in response to the new danger.

A bonus tip: tie the early small quests to the coming cataclysm. The plans the engineer stole? They were for a lair to be constructed for the soon to invade dragon and they deduced the coming threat and tried to escape. The stolen artifact? It was a scroll of Tarrasque summoning that was subsequently used. Don’t be afraid to put your thumb on the scale and make the quest impossible for the sake of your set piece (the dragon is already in flight, the scroll has already been read, etc), but create that tie and investment in what’s to come in addition to the personal threat of safety.

Author: Y. Balloo

Amateur novelist / Work in progress.

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