I did not become a dungeon master until the fall of 2016. Fifth edition had just dropped and I was checking the pulse on a few of my friends to see if they’d be interested in getting a game going. In order to grease the wheels a bit, I offered to run the game. After writing the initial campaign notes and back story during some of my honeymoon, we scheduled the first session. I had played version 3.5 briefly but had no previous DM experience. I was now sitting down to try and corral a group of six willing subjects. That game would stretch into a four part, two and a half year journey.
Building the World
Deciding early on that I did not want to use any pre-existing modules really set the stage for my workload. I didn’t want to deal with learning the lore of a world such as Forgotten Realms. World building is a very cathartic process, but it is involved.
I settled on a small-ish world about the size of the moon when compared to the Earth. With proper transportation, one could traverse the world by horse and by boat within about a month’s time. This way I could limit the number of major cities I had to create and it ended up being an easier transition into world building. Once the main continent had been partially fleshed out I decided it was time to start working on the story itself.
Part 1: Cors Labyrinth
The characters would start in a large town called Villben. It was here they were to deliver a document to someone who would later usher them through the first campaign.
I needed an antagonist for this trial run and decided to pick a theme. Once I had decided that I wanted the enemy to be devious and fiendish in nature I ended up going with a succubus named Ferrera. She had used her wiles to steal away a young heir to the ruling family of the town called the Cors. After seducing him and making him her thrall she planned a series of carefully guised murders that enabled her to take over completely as matriarch of the family. They produced a son together, a cambion who would grow to become a sadistic torturer. The mother and son fiends would slowly siphon the life and vitality from the town until the party could disrupt their plans.
Part 2: The Doomed Trilogy
The next part of the journey was in stopping a necromancer posing as an older priest. He stole away an ally of the group and was chased to an island where he deceived an entire seaside village into giving up their lives to serve in reviving an old and powerful book on the aspects of death magic. This book turned out to be one of three.
The second book would turn out to be kept in a tomb by the ancestors of an old dwarven city. And the third was kept by an imprisoned shadow dragon in a hidden pocket dimension.
Part 3: Breaking the Caste
After dealing with necromantic literature, the group began to focus on upsetting the vibrant caste system in the dwarven city. They managed to uncover a plot between a wealthy member of one of the highest castes who was illegally selling members of the lowest caste and exporting them. After a lengthy investigation and including a lavish party at the suspect’s house a trial was set.
The offender and her compatriots were sentenced to a decade of hard labor in the mines. Conditions then began to improve for the lowest caste.
Part 4: Experiments in the Dark
Dragonborn have been disappearing and it’s up to the group to uncover the ones responsible.
In this case, it is discovered that an entity named Quilmursakio was gathering dragonborn in order to perform experimentation on their forms. Being of superior intelligence, Quilmursakio had invented cloning and was using it to produce his own armor of dragon-like humanoids to do his bidding.
The party discovered his cloning facility deep underground and also found out that he was a terrifying beholder.
Part 5: World Parasite
The big bad of the whole game turned out to be an atropal named Anathema. This poor, sad, stillborn baby god had been brought to consciousness by previous events and was now hell-bent on nursing the life completely from the planet it was enshrined inside.
After acquiring divine weapons and armor, the party worked their way through the earth itself, the group came upon the undead god while being revived by a previous nemesis. After an intense battle, they all prevailed and saved the world of Gl’rel. Yay.
So What Did I Learn
- Plan. Pre-roll what you can, it will save a lot of encounter setup time.
- Communicate with your players. Make sure they’re having the experience they want.
- Strategize encounters. Set up fights that play to the characters’ strengths and weaknesses.
- Keep a pace. A slow or distracting game isn’t always fun. It can be difficult to gather a group in one place around a table. Use the time wisely.
- Use a wiki. Tools like Fandom handle tracking NPCs, locations, items and related content you want to be public.
- Use fully-featured management tools. D&D Beyond has a special package for dungeon masters to organize players and campaigns.
- Overplan. Keep your campaign notes light and bulleted where possible.
- Underdescribe. This is theater of the mind. What one might call a “wooden box” can become “a mahogany chest with platinum inlay and a carved rose motif.”
- Crowd encounters. It can be hard managing 20+ entities on a map and it slows the game down, use creative landscapes or area effects instead.
- Be Afraid. It’s easy to find your groove among friends.