Learn From My Fail: How Not to Start D&D 5e in a Tavern
There is a special kind of suck when you have a great idea for a campaign opener and then fail to adequately set the scene. If you’ve ever experienced it as a player, that moment where the opening narration sort of dies away and the DM looks at you expectantly, you know what I’m talking about. It’s even worse if you’re that expectant DM, waiting for the players to take their first faltering steps into this grand and expansive world that you’ve created. You wait, but you only get a sort of wide-eyed look of confusion. It’s basically the worst feeling you can have while running the game. It sucks. It really, really sucks.
That was basically how my new campaign started. I’d pitched the campaign to my players, drawn some maps, done some prep-work, had good long conversations about character creation and grounding in the world, and built some content. Read here: I’d done everything that I thought that I needed to do to ensure that the first session rolled out smoothly. I’ve been running this game for a long time, and I think sometimes I have this mental roadblock that says “I know what I’m doing, this is going to be easy.” And to a certain extent, I think it is easy. But I also forget that there are a lot of little nit-noid things that can stand in the way of getting down to the fun part of this hobby.
There were a couple of problems with the first session. We have new players who haven’t logged a lot of time on the old D20, and that tends to make things kind of scary and weird the first time around. We had some technical issues which are endemic to the online platform which is my only outlet for tabletop roleplaying these days. We didn’t discuss our grounding or characters before I jumped in, so no one was ready to make that transition from white-room game theory to the collaborative fiction. I also didn’t give anyone any coaching about how openly I run my game. This is largely me prevaricating and shifting around blame, because really these all kind of come down to me.
I screwed up, and the first thirty minutes of the session were kind of awkward because of it.
I tend not to do a lot of prep, being an improvisational storyteller. When I do prep, I’m a serial over-prepper and because I love this hobby so, I tend to get in trouble with how much time I spend working out the details and beats and encounters and treasure and homebrew monsters and, and, and… You see where I’m going. I tend to rely on my stupid, sexy writer-brain to extemporaneously take these broad-stroke ideas I’ve committed to paper and run with them. Usually, it works out pretty well. This time? Not so much.
Why? Two reasons. One I can’t fix, and one that I could have, but didn’t. The first is that I haven’t run for these players long enough for them to get that natural rhythm that only develops with time. When I trail off, they don’t know my natural cadence well enough to know that I’m not just looking for a word, but rather hoping that they’ll jump in and grab that thread with both hands. We aren’t comfortable with each other yet. That comes in time, but until it does there’s a little bit of awkward pausing. I was prepared for that. They might not have been. But it’s fine.
What isn’t fine, is that I completely flubbed my introduction.
If I could, I’d type up a full transcript of my attempt to explain the journey that took this established group of adventurers along the road to the furthest flung speck of civilization in the empire in search of adventure, wealth, and fame. Instead, you’ll have to take me at my word when I tell you that no one was really clear as to why they showed up in the lone tavern in Whistler’s Ridge, road-weary, hungry, and without a whole lot of ideas as to how to proceed. They knew that they were treasure hunters, looking for a cool lost city which legends say lies somewhere beyond the traveled frontiers around Whistler’s Ridge. They weren’t sure what kind of token or cookie or whatever they needed to get from this tavern to the adventure.
Let me give an example. I mentioned that the characters were in Whistler’s Ridge because it was the closest spark of civilization to their quarry. One of my players assumed that this meant that there was a quarry in the surrounding area that bore investigation. Quarry was probably not the right word to use when describing a lost city and civilization. I’d been imprecise in my use of language, and so the Bard was asking what was going on in the surrounding mines, fishing for a plot hook. There was one, but that’s neither here nor there.
I could have gotten in front of this problem before it became a problem. While I’m not generally in favor of box-text, a little intro script might have served me in good stead, here. Imagine jumping into Star Wars without that opening text-crawl–and also you lived in a pop-culture vacuum and had never heard of Star Wars. Nothing would have made sense. It would have been a mass of, “Where’s this ship going…oh, two ships. That one’s huge! They’re shooting at each other. Wait, who are these guys? Why do they hate that wall? Who are those guys? Whoa! Who’s that guy? Robots? What are we doing here?” But because the opening text crawl lets us know that the Rebel Alliance has captured plans for the Death Star superweapon from the Empire, and Darth Vader is chasing Princess Leia’s ship in order to get them back? The questions are largely answered. We’ve got some idea of what the background is, and can settle in to watch the narrative develop.
I did not do this, and it set my characters up for a bad time.
Now, the teachable moment here is something that I’m having trouble really coming to grips with. I mean, it’s really easy for me to sit here after the fact and beat myself up about it, point my admonishing finger and say, don’t do that. It feels bad to sit on this side of the screen and see the players confused. It feels bad to be the confused player who came to the table, excited and ready to lose themselves in a story. So, let’s workshop what I should’ve done.
I told my players that they were buying in as an adventuring party searching for a lost city on the edge of the wilderness. Classic D&D, that. What I should have done was give context. Instead of dropping them into the town with the journey behind them, I surrendered the set-up to get to where things started happening to the characters. In my excitement to get to the fun, I failed to show what it was that led the characters to the counter of the tavern.
If I had to do it again, it would’ve been less, “After three days on the road from Hightower, you find yourselves in the center square of the sleepy hamlet of Whistler’s Ridge,” and more like:
We find our heroes, The Tallflower Five, disembarking from the back of Dimwell the merchant’s cart in the town of Whistler’s Ridge. It’s been a bumpy ride for the past three days. The road from Hightower is little more than a rutted dirt track, and your bones are glad to be spared the jolting of the cart. Whistler’s Ridge is a sleepy little burg on the edge of the vast wilderness of the Ghostmarch. Somewhere out there, beyond the looming trees, lies Tanelorne: the fabled city, jewel of a bygone age, graveyard of mystery, and object of your quest. What would you like to do?
See that? It’s just a little bit of boxout text, but it tells the players where they are, where they were, how they passed the journey, and why they find themselves on the edge of the world. That last bit in there even is a clear demarcation of where my bit of DM intro fades out and turns over control of the narrative to the players. It’s a signal that the ball is in their court. And it works way better than fading out.
See, they eventually got their feet under them, and the momentum started mounting, but if I’d just thought about grounding my players, I think there would have been way less of an awkward pause as everyone figured out what they were doing in the absolute middle of nowhere.
So ends my war-story for the week. Hopefully, when next you run this game, you’ll think about your opening shot a little bit more than I did. Your players will thank you.